Editorial: Poor leadership on state hospital

Officials’ handling of a serious staff shortage at the state’s psychiatric hospital in Larned is thoroughly disappointing and raises concerns about ongoing leadership at the hospital.

Last month, officials at Larned reported the hospital was often short-staffed on specific nights. On Dec. 22, the hospital was 20 mental health technicians and six registered nurses short of staffing required for the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. On Sunday, Dec. 17, officials said the hospital was 43 mental health technicians shy of filling the 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union that represents Larned Hospital workers, said the staff shortages are chronic. Choromanski blamed Tim Keck, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, for Keck’s poor management skills. He said Keck’s leadership has led to extremely low morale at Larned.

Told of Choromanski’s comments, Keck fired back, accusing some Larned employees of laziness.

“It’s a big institution there, we’ve got a lot of people working there, and a very high percentage of employees are hard-working, dedicated that are committed to our patients and to their job, a very high percentage, probably 90 to 95 percent,” Keck said. “But it’s like any big institution. We have a number of employees who don’t want to do what they need to do. We’re changing the culture there, I promise you that.”

Keck also accused many state hospital workers of calling in to get out of work on or around paydays. “We’ve heard anecdotally that people are going to a concert or a rodeo,” he said. “For example, on the weekend before Christmas, which was a payday, we had, I think, about 50 people call in that weekend. So that hurts the staffing, of course.”

Larned State Hospital is a 525-bed facility west of Wichita in Pawnee County. The hospital houses the state’s sexual predator treatment program, where 218 beds are reserved for people who have served their sentences for violent sex crimes, but are committed to the hospital by a court because they’re still considered a danger to society.

Staff shortages at Larned State Hospital are an ongoing problem. It’s a challenging environment in which to recruit workers. Wages aren’t great, and Larned is a small town in a rural location.

But Keck’s comments about some staff members’ work ethic and commitment to the hospital certainly do not help matters. The role of the secretary of the Department for Aging and Disability Services is to build and support the department’s staff. Engaging in petty exchanges with a union boss only exacerbate the staffing issue.