by BLAISE MESA
Kansas News Service
Topeka – Patients in distress wait in the lobby of a Wichita hospital because psychiatric wards are full.
Inmates at Sedgwick County Jail are waiting up to a year to be transferred to Larned State Hospital just for an evaluation.
Hospital staff are suffocated, kicked and screamed by people who do not have access to intensive mental health care.
Hospital administrators told lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday that a lack of mental health services and overcrowding put patients and health care workers at risk in hospitals in southern and central Kansas.
Robin Chadwick, president of Ascension Via Christi St. “We need help.”
Chadwick urged lawmakers to expand mental health bed capacity in Kansas. She spoke to the Special Committee on Family Mental Health on Tuesday morning and said her hospital was under severe stress.
Chadwick said St. Joseph’s has spent millions expanding its emergency room capacity but can’t keep up. She added that rural hospitals do not have the resources to deal with these patients. Saint Joseph can send patients to a government hospital, but the waiting lists are very long and the health system is already looking after about 11 people who qualify for a government hospital.
As calls for a new hospital intensified, lawmakers on the committee questioned whether a private or state-run facility was preferable. Representative Henry Helgerson, a Democrat from Eastborough, said he’s seen more private beds than public ones in the past decade. But Chadwick wasn’t enthusiastic about more privately funded rooms as she watched those facilities shut down.
New hospitals are on the horizon. Governor Laura Kelly toured the soon-to-be-completed youth facility in Hays last week. Once completed in January, it will be the only facility in the state west of Wichita that offers acute care for children with severe mental health needs.
Kelly was also in Wichita last week to lobby for a 50-bed facility in Sedgwick County.
“When I took office, one of my top priorities was to strengthen our mental health system,” Kelly said last week. “Even though we’ve come a long way over the past four years, I know there’s still a lot to do.”
Sedgwick County has tried to build a mental health hospital since 2018, but nothing has materialized. The state has earmarked $15 million for the hospital and Kelly wants to see another $25 million in COVID relief money sent to the project. Sedgwick County has applied for $40 million in federal economic stimulus money to build.
It’s essential, it’s too late, and we don’t have time to wait,” Kelly said.
Chadwick worries that finding hospital staff will be difficult. She said a new hospital would withdraw staff from St. Joseph. Fewer staff means fewer beds are available, and Chadwick said the opening of the new hospital would have no impact on the state’s overall capacity.
State officials said Larnde State Hospital could accommodate more people, but the hospital lacks the staff to expand its capacity.
It recommended that lawmakers create tuition-waiver programs or offer in-state classes to out-of-state health students.
“We’re going to stay in this business,” Chadwick said, “but we need your help to do that.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him [email protected]