Council calls for closing state hospital

Kansas no longer needs two state hospitals for the developmentally disabled.

“They should close at least one,” said Jane Rhys, executive director at the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“For every person in the hospitals now, there is someone who is just as fragile or whose behaviors are just as difficult, living in a community setting,” she said. “They don’t have to be in an institution. They should be and they deserve to be living in the community.”

Combined, the two hospitals – Parsons State Hospital and Training Center and Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka – tap state and federal budgets for almost $50 million a year.

Because of the hospitals’ fixed costs, each resident’s stay costs, on average, more than $130,000 annually.

“The average cost for a person in a community setting is $25,000, though, granted, someone coming out of a state hospital would probably cost much more than $25,000 – but less, certainly, than $130,000,” Rhys said.

Later this summer, state welfare officials will begin a lengthy assessment of the hospitals’ futures. It’s unlikely, they said, that either facility could be closed anytime soon or that closure will be easy.

More about the hospital

“At this point, there’s not enough capacity in the community to support the kind of medical needs and behavioral issues we’re talking about here,” said Ray Dalton, who oversees the hospitals for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Neither hospital, he said, is designed to take on the other’s residents.

“Parsons is set up for people with severe behavior issues,” said Dalton, a former superintendent at KNI. “At KNI the emphasis is more on medical conditions.”

SRS Secretary Gary Daniels is a former superintendent at Parsons State Hospital.

Neither hospital’s population – 168 at KNI, 195 at Parsons – is growing, he said.

The call for closing a state hospital has been heard before. Lawmakers closed Winfield State Hospital and Training Center in 1998, prompting heated protests from community leaders and residents’ families.

At the time, Winfield State Hospital was the oldest and largest of the three state hospitals for the developmentally disabled.

Sharon Bird, whose son, Michael, was a resident at Winfield State Hospital, fought to keep the hospital open.

“The state wasn’t very happy with us,” Bird said, referring to herself and other parents who feared their sons and daughters were being abandoned.

Earlier this year, Bird testified in favor of closing either KNI or Parsons State Hospital.

“I tell people we’re still mad,” she said. “We were mad back then because they wanted to close the hospital, and we’re mad today because they didn’t close it sooner.”

Contrary to her earlier fears, Bird said her son has thrived in the duplex in Winfield he shares with three other former hospital residents.

“He absolutely loves it there,” she said.

But the institution-to-community transition, she warned, was not easy.

“You have to be in there fighting for (residents) or making things happen on your own,” she said. “No one else is going to do it for you.”

In recent years, legislators have resisted calls for closing another hospital.

“The memories of what closing Winfield was like are still fresh,” Rhys said. “They don’t want to go through it again.”

Legislators also have balked at expanding community-based programs for the developmentally disabled, most of which are operating at or near capacity.

“Any reduction in the state hospital populations has to be coupled with additional supports in the community,” said Peggy Wallert, director of community relations and development at Cottonwood Inc. in Lawrence.

Interhab, a state association representing community-based programs, opposes closing another state hospital without a clear understanding of the costs and how the openings would be paid for.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, doubts that either hospital will close anytime soon.

“I just don’t see it happening until we can identify how we can provide the same – or better – services in the community,” she said. “We need to guarantee that the funding will follow the individual out of the hospital and into the community.

“We have a long way to go before we can make that guarantee,” said Ballard, who serves on a budget subcommittee that oversees the SRS budget.

But the issues surrounding closure aren’t going away, Rhys said.

“We can talk about money and funding streams and all that,” she said. “But it all comes down to doing what’s right, and these people don’t belong in a hospital. They belong in the community, close to their families. It’s the right thing to do.”

The state hospitals for the developmentally disabled are not to be confused with those for the mentally ill in Osawatomie, Larned and Kansas City.