KHI News Service
TOPEKA — The head of the state welfare agency has countermanded controversial comments made recently by a top deputy to a group of mental health advocates.
Pedro Moreno, deputy secretary at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, met July 27 with members of the Mental Health Coalition of Kansas.
Moreno, who heads disability and behavioral services at the agency, said he planned to ask the state’s judges to take into consideration SRS’ budget situation and the capacities of the state hospitals before committing persons to the facilities. Admission to the hospitals is restricted to those considered a danger to themselves or others.
“We want to go to judges and plead with them and tell them that when you make (commitment) decisions, please consider capacity issues,” Moreno told the coalition members.
But SRS officials have subsequently characterized Moreno’s remarks as brainstorming and not representative of the agency’s intentions.
SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki released an audio recording to members of the media saying that the agency remains focused on treating those with serious mental illness.
”The state is facing tough budget decisions,” Siedlecki said. “But as mandated by federal law, SRS will continue to treat people with severe and persistent mental illness who are a danger to themselves and others. The priority of SRS is to make certain that every individual who needs help receives it, which will ensure the ongoing health and safety of all Kansans.”
For at least the past two years, the state’s three hospitals for the mentally ill have regularly been filled beyond their licensed capacities.
Moreno believes the state hospitals should not be required to take more patients than budgets allow.
“They need to figure out a way how not to break the bank,” Moreno said, referring to the judges and to the state’s community mental health centers.
The state’s three hospitals for the mentally ill — Larned State Hospital, Osawatomie State Hospital, and Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City — have frequently been full beyond capacity in recent years. Larned State Hospital has been over capacity four out of every five days for at least the past two years, according to SRS reports.
About half of the three hospitals’ admissions result from referral by a community mental health center; the other half are court-ordered because a judge has determined the individuals are a threat to themselves or others. All state hospital admissions are limited to people with severe and persistent mental illnesses who are considered a danger to themselves or others.
Whether Moreno’s overture to the judges succeeds remains to be seen. Mike Hammond, executive director at the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said he doubted that the SRS appeal to judges would make much difference.
“We have been sounding the alarm on this issue for the last five years, at least,” Hammond said. “What’s happened is we’re having more and more people turning to the public mental health system for help while at the same time the resources to support this increase have been declining, especially when you’re talking about the uninsured. I doubt that the judges will be a position to do anything. Their concern is with the case in front of them, it’s not with whether SRS has the money.”
Johnson County Community Mental Health Center Executive Director David Wiebe said overcrowding at the hospitals is sure to lead to more mentally ill people ending up in jail.
Earlier this month, SRS stopped sending overflow patients from Larned State Hospital to the inpatient unit at Prairie View, a community mental health center in Newton. Prairie View officials said they were told that SRS had run out of money.
In the budget approved by the Legislature, SRS was instructed to cut more than $21 million in state spending.