Editorial: Time for action

A new task force report identifies a practical strategy to bolster the state’s mental health system.

The bottom line of a task force report released last week is clear: The current Kansas mental health system “is stretched beyond its ability to provide the right care at the right time in the right place.”

The Adult Continuum of Care Committee’s conclusions should be a call to action for state officials to address what the task force concluded is a potentially dangerous situation for the state. “The health and safety of our citizens, families and communities are at risk “in a system where we must desperately seek alternative placements in order to avoid unacceptable hospital census numbers,” the report said.

The two state hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie have a capacity of 310 people. Construction at Osawatome has reduced its capacity to 146 people and the combined capacity of the two hospitals to 250 people. That has left health providers scrambling to find other placements for people with serious mental illness. The hospitals have been forced to turn many patients away and, according to the report, have been under “increasing pressure to discharge patients more quickly to make room for more.” This is a risky situation when many of the individuals in question have been deemed by the courts to pose a danger to themselves or others.

Clearly, the committee says, restoring Osawatomie to its intended population is a top priority, but other steps are needed to ease the demand on state hospitals. Those hospitals, it says, should primarily provide tertiary, longer term treatment for chronic mental illness rather than focus as much effort as they do now on providing broad safety net services. That means other facilities will have to provide that safety net for people in mental health crisis. Services like Evergreen House in Emporia and crisis stabilization programs in Topeka and Wichita are helping meet that need but the number of inpatient beds still is inadequate, according to the report.

“Sustainable funding” for both the crisis programs and community mental health centers like Lawrence’s Bert Nash must be part of the equation, the report concludes. The community centers currently receive less than half as much state funding as they received in 2007 to serve uninsured clients, the report said.

Just days after the release of this report, it was disappointing that the governor’s budget plans included a cut that will delay for six months — from January 2016 to July 2016 — the opening of a refurbished building at Larned State Hospital. The building will house patients in the state’s Sexual Predator Treatment Program, and state officials say they aren’t concerned about the delay, but given the current situation any move that potentially worsens crowding at state hospitals seems ill-advised.

As part of its report, the Adult Continuum of Care Committee summarized the findings of several other special task forces over the last decade and noted that although earlier groups also had identified solutions to address overcrowding at state hospitals, “little action followed.” To its credit, the committee also volunteered to continue to meet so that it can oversee the implementation of its recommendations.

It does little good to study a problem and identify solutions if those solutions are never implemented. The state’s mental health system needs help. The time for action is now.