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Senators consider expanding psychiatric services in western Kansas

Sydney Hoover
Sen. Richard Billinger speaks to the Senate Public Affairs Committee about a bill that would provide more acute psychiatric beds in western Kansas.

A Kansas Senate bill would allocate $11.8 million to open and operate hospital beds for youths requiring short-term psychiatric care in Hays, Garden City and surrounding areas, officials said Wednesday.

Sen. Richard Billinger, R-Goodland, spoke Wednesday in favor of the bill, which would create two dozen new acute psychiatric beds in western Kansas. He said currently, families in those areas drive two to three hours to Wichita or as far as Kansas City to get lifesaving psychiatric services for their children.

“We’re waiting for one of these children to hurt themselves or someone else, and then it’s going to be too late for a bill like this,” Billinger said.

In October 2019, KVC closed its hospital in Hays for short-term psychiatric patients as it was unable to provide a unit separate from long-term patients. Now, the closest beds for short-term stays are in Wichita, a two- to three-hour drive for many western Kansas families.

“This puts a real burden on these families. Some of these parents have jobs, other children at home,” Billinger said. “What’s happening is some of these parents are saying it’s just really not an option, and they’re taking these children home.”

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, spoke in favor of the bill. She said although there isn’t a shortage of acute psychiatric beds in the state, the lack of those west of Wichita could create problems for families.

The bill would provide $11.8 million to fund the beds, including $8.3 million from the state general fund. But some concerns arose because of the cost to create facilities that meet federal standards, as well as staffing.

Amy Campbell, who spoke on behalf of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said she was concerned the bill required the beds to be established in existing facilities.

“We would caution that being able to hire and retain the proper staff and having the correct facilities to be certified probably can’t happen within existing resources,” Campbell said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do this.”

Sen. Barbara Bollier, D-Mission Hills, questioned whether the bill should be considered before expanding Medicaid. She asked proponents of the bill if they would put Medicaid expansion at a higher need than the bill in question.

“We have to make choices in this Legislature about where we spend our money, and it sounds to me like this is a huge expense,” Bollier said. “I’m not opposed to it at all, but I’m trying to weigh out where our money should be spent.”

Others disagreed, saying this bill should be considered regardless of any decision made on Medicaid. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said limited funds are an issue in all budgetary decisions, and legislators can make changes to the budget until it is passed into law.

Committee chairman Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, said the committee would take action on the bill. He advised senators to speak with relevant people to get questions regarding funding answered in order to continue moving forward.