Topeka State officials were urged Monday to go slow when considering the potentially explosive topic of closing a state hospital for people with disabilities.
And that's exactly how state Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said the state would proceed.
Morris, chairman of the Senate budget-writing committee, said he doubted that the Legislature would approve a hospital closure this year, instead possibly taking several years to study the issue.
"Right now, I don't see us closing one," Morris said. "It's a very complex issue that deserves a lot of discussion."
A special committee of House and Senate budget-writers is examining the issue for a couple of days between legislative sessions.
The state operates five hospitals at a cost of about $103.4 million per year; $71 million of that is federal money, and the rest is state funds.
The hospitals for people with severe mental illness are Larned State Hospital, Osawatomie State Hospital and Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan. The two hospitals for people with developmental disabilities are Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka and Parsons State Hospital and Training Center.
In the 1990s, state officials closed two state hospitals, in Winfield and Topeka. As more patients are placed in community-based facilities, policymakers have debated in the past couple of years whether to shut down more hospitals.
Current discussions on closing a hospital are being driven, at least in part, by the increased costs of maintaining the facilities during a time when state revenues are flat and federal funding has been cut.
"We are running two institutions at 50 percent capacity," said state Rep. Joe Shriver, D-Arkansas City. He said that "doesn't make a lot of financial sense." Kansas Neurological Institute has a capacity of 454 patients and Parsons 336; the neurological institute currently has 174 patients and Parsons about 190.
But Leon Owens, superintendent of the neurological institute, said the lower number of clients allowed it to deliver better and more personalized care. With fewer people, the clients receive more choices on how they want to live, Owens said.
If Parsons were closed and many of the patients moved into Kansas Neurological Institute, then that quality of care would suffer, he said.
Stephanie Wilson, executive director of the Alliance for Kansans with Developmental Disabilities in Lawrence, said if the state decided to close a hospital, it must assure parents and guardians of hospital residents that adequate funds would be appropriated for needed services.
Laura Howard, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, said at this point nearly all the people living in Kansas Neurological Institute and Parsons and their families had decided to stay in those facilities and weren't interested in seeking community-based services.
If the Legislature proceeds with more discussions on closing a hospital, Howard recommended "that the principle of family choice be included on the agenda."