Editorial: Privatization not a solution

Shifting responsibility to private hands will not address the core issues that the state hospital faces.

State legislators should be wary of plans to try to privatize the state’s psychiatric hospital.

Last week, Tim Keck, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which manages the Osawatomie State Hospital, said the hospital has become too challenging for the state to manage. Keck and others argued that the state should build a new facility and then contract with a for-profit corporation to run it.

The hospital near Kansas City has been in operation since 1866. Many of the campus buildings were built prior to 1950. The most modern building was built in the 1980s. The facilities are inadequate and the hospital faces a number of other issues, including staff shortages. It is licensed for more than 200 beds, but because of the staffing issues, the hospital has limited its patient population to 150 beds since 2015. In 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decertified the hospital.

Keck said the deficiencies are being corrected but long term, the state needs a new approach. Estimates are that it would cost $175 million to replace the current facilities. After that, Keck and others advocate hiring Correct Care of Nashville, Tenn., to operate the hospital. Keck said KDADS will seek legislative approval for the privatization plan during the 2018 session.

The problem with Keck’s plan is that, on the surface, it would appear to be more expensive to pay a for-profit company to operate the hospital than for the state to operate it as a nonprofit. It isn’t clear how hiring an outside contractor addresses the persistent staffing issues that the Osawatomie facility faces.

The lack of beds at the state hospital has placed pressure on Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to house psychiatric patients until they can be transferred to the state hospital. Russell Johnson, CEO at LMH, and Patrick Schmitz, CEO at Bert Nash, both are skeptical of privatization.

“My sense of it is that (privatizing) isn’t going to really address the practical limitation of funding in behavioral and mental health, either at Osawatomie or more broadly,” said Russell Johnson, CEO at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. “So I don’t understand what that really solves, other than it moves the problem out from a governmental oversight and into a private oversight that’s going to be ultimately accountable to the state anyway.”

The state’s efforts at privatization haven’t always gone well in the past. State Sen. Laura Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, noted that the state’s efforts to privatize its Medicaid program have led to a host of problems.

There is a sense of urgency to address the issues at the Osawatomie facility. But turning over the operation to a for-profit company doesn’t solve the problem; it simply shifts the burden of responsibility. Patients in need of mental health services and their families deserve better.