Kansas Mental Health Hospitals Are so Overcrowded That Patients Have to Wait in Hallways

Topeka, KS— Patients facing mental health crises are waiting in a Wichita hospital hallway because psychiatric wards are full.

Inmates in the Sedgwick County Jail wait up to a year to get transferred to the Larned State Hospital simply for evaluations.

And hospital workers get choked, kicked or yelled at by people who can’t get intensive mental health care.

Hospital administrators told lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday that a lack of mental health services and overcrowding puts both patients and health care workers in danger at hospitals in south and central Kansas.

“The money we’ve spent and the space we have created has been grossly overwhelmed in recent years with the need,” said Robyn Chadwick, president of the Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital in Wichita. “We do need help.”

Chadwick urged lawmakers to expand the capacity of mental health beds in Kansas. She spoke to the Special Committee on Mental Health Beds Tuesday morning and said her hospital is stretched thin.

The St. Joseph hospital has spent millions to expand capacity in its emergency room but it can’t keep up, Chadwick said. She added that rural hospitals don’t have the resources to handle these patients. St. Joseph could send patients to a state hospital, but the waitlists are so long and the health system already cares for around 11 people who are otherwise state-hospital eligible.

As calls for a new hospital intensified, lawmakers on the committee questioned whether a private or state-run facility is best. Rep. Henry Helgerson, an Eastborough Democrat, said he’s seen more private beds than public beds in the last decade. But Chadwick was not excited by more privately-funded rooms because she’s seen those facilities close down.

New hospitals are on the horizon. Gov. Laura Kelly toured the soon-to-be-completed youth facility in Hays last week. Once it’s completed in January, it will be the state’s only facility west of Wichita to offer acute care for kids with severe mental health needs.

Kelly was also in Wichita last week to push for a 50-bed facility in Sedgwick County.

“When I came into office, one of my highest priorities was strengthening our mental health system,” Kelly said last week. “Even though we have come a long way over the last four years, I know there is still so much we need to do.”

Sedgwick County has tried to build a mental health hospital since 2018, but nothing has materialized. The state has allocated $15 million for the hospital and Kelly wants to see another $25 million in COVID relief funds sent toward the project. Sedgwick County applied for $40 million in federal economic stimulus money for construction.

“It’s essential,” Kelly said, “It’s overdue, and we don’t have time to wait.”

Chadwick worries finding workers to staff a hospital will prove daunting. She said a new hospital would siphon off employees from St. Joseph. Fewer employees would mean fewer beds available and Chadwick said opening the new hospital could have no impact on the state’s overall capacity.

State officials said the Larned State Hospital could take in more people, but the hospital lacks the staff to expand its capacity.

She recommended lawmakers create tuition forgiveness programs or offer in-state tuition to out-of-state health students.

“We will stay in this business,” Chadwick said, “but we need your help to do it.”

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 at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

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