Sheriff Jeff Easter is president of Sedgwick County’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition, which alongside the county is seeking a new regionalized state mental health hospital in the Wichita area. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Sheriff Jeff Easter is president of Sedgwick County’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition, which alongside the county is seeking a new state mental health hospital in the Wichita area. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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For decades, the Sedgwick County Jail has been overcrowded. 

A federal lawsuit in 1986 that capped the jail population and required a plan to deal with overcrowding at the facility was only the start. Since, multiple expansions and facilities have been built in an attempt to alleviate the numbers. 

But throughout 2021, the jail continued to struggle with overcrowding, due to a pandemic-induced court backlog and a number of people in jail awaiting mental health treatment. Throughout the last two weeks, the jail population has been about 100 people over its capacity, Sheriff Jeff Easter said. 

It’s a problem Easter desperately wants to solve. A new state mental health facility in the Wichita area would help, he said, because the two current state hospitals are unable to see people quickly enough. Easter is also president of Sedgwick County’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition.

“We have 29 inmates waiting to go to Larned,” Easter said, referring to one of the state mental health hospitals. “The average wait time is 130 days. The longest wait time is someone who has been here 329 days.”

A new regional state mental health facility is a big financial request, County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said. While it’s been on Sedgwick County’s legislative agenda for four years, more and more entities are getting on board with the legislative request. This year, the county, the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce and the city of Wichita have come out with a joint legislative agenda asking for a new state mental health hospital in south central Kansas.

What is a state mental health hospital?

Sedgwick County has a litany of mental health resources for people having mental health crises — from COMCARE, the county’s mental health authority, to Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, which provides inpatient behavioral health care. 

But what the county does not have is a state hospital to care for people facing a court order for mental health treatment or evaluation. Larned State Hospital and Osawatomie State Hospital are the only two state-run hospitals that do — but each is about two hours away. 

Both Easter and Robyn Chadwick, president of Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, said the wait time to get a patient from their facilities into a state hospital can range from days to months. Meanwhile, patients at the facilities are hours away from their families in Sedgwick County, County Commissioner David Dennis added. 

COMCARE does not take patients with court-ordered involuntary commitments, Dennis said. Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph does, Chadwick said. But she added that the hospital is overwhelmed by the number of patients it sees and their mental health needs. 

This is for two reasons, Chadwick said. First, she’s seen the closing of other privately run inpatient behavioral health hospital beds in Wichita over the last few decades. The second is a 2015 moratorium on receiving voluntary patients at the Osawatomie State Hospital.

“With the moratorium we have become the substitute state hospital,” Chadwick said. “Our incidence of violence and patients who have criminal issues has really increased.” 

Over the past five years, Sedgwick County sent the most patients among counties to Osawatomie State Hospital, according to data provided by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. 

Hundreds of new beds needed

The state once funded four mental health facilities — but the Topeka State Hospital and Winfield State Hospital closed in 1997 and 1998, respectively. After they shut down, the legislature was supposed to increase funding for community mental health centers, said State Rep. Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita), who chairs the state’s Special Committee on Kansas Mental Health Modernization and Reform. 

“Guess what?” Landwehr said. “It hasn’t.”

Calls for more support to state mental health facilities have been ongoing for years. In 2019, a state Mental Health Task Force told the Kansas Legislature it needed to add between 36 to 60 state-licensed behavioral health beds in the next two years. 

Since then, none has been added. The state is currently working to add over a dozen beds through a renovation of Osawatomie State Hospital.

The task force also recommended a total of 221 state-licensed beds be added over a span of five years. 

The state has undertaken other efforts to address the bed shortage. In 2020, the state began paying community hospitals, including Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, to treat patients who meet the criteria for a state hospital level of care.

But Easter said the program is essentially just payment for services the hospital was already providing — not necessarily an increase of the number of beds available. 

Gov. Laura Kelly also lifted the moratorium on voluntary admissions to Osawatomie State Hospital in December. But Chadwick said that doesn’t add more beds to the system.

Could this be the year?

County officials and state lawmakers said the upcoming legislative session, which opened on Monday, hints at a more promising outlook for adding a new state hospital.

“There’s a whole slew of new funds that are coming to our community,” Cruse said, pointing to the $1.6 billion in American Rescue Plan Act dollars that the state received. Counties and cities also received American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

There’s also the joint legislative agenda from the city, county and chamber. This is the first year the chamber explicitly supported a new state mental health hospital in south central Kansas in its legislative agenda, said Andrew Wiens, the chamber’s vice president of government relations. The Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) of South Central Kansas, which represents 10 counties in south central Kansas, also supports the hospital. 

That regional support for the hospital is essential to move the project forward, Landwehr said. 

“You can’t just ask one community to do this,” Landwehr said. “It isn’t a Sedgwick County issue to solely deal with.”

But no legislator has sponsored a bill to create a new state hospital, said McPherson Mayor Tom Brown, chair of REAP. Brown said his organization is actively seeking a lawmaker to introduce a bill for the new hospital. 

Sen. Carolyn McGinn (R-Sedgwick), vice chair of the Special Committee on Kansas Mental Health Modernization and Reform, said she would push for the state budget to include funding for a new state hospital. She also chairs the Legislative Budget Committee. 

While officials in south central Kansas are coalescing around a new state-run mental health hospital, that doesn’t mean it’s the silver bullet solution statewide. Amy Campbell, who served on the state Mental Health Task Force and is a lobbyist for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said a new state hospital in Sedgwick County could mean more competition for staff at existing facilities like COMCARE or Ascension Via Christi.

“An overall system approach is what we support,” Campbell said. “I hear people talk about, ‘Oh, we need a facility in Wichita.’ There are too many people who feel like that is the answer — and there’s not one answer.”  

But Dennis emphasized that Sedgwick County’s legislative agenda calls on the state to support a regionalized state mental health hospital system — not just one in Sedgwick County. 

“There needs to be more than one,” Dennis said. “We just want to be the first one.”

And for some advocates, the location of the hospital is less important than ensuring a hospital will be added at all. 

“I’m not fighting for Wichita to get it over, let’s say, Dodge City or Salina or Garden City or Great Bend. If any of those communities want the regional hospital in their backyard, I’d be 100% in favor of it,” Chadwick said. “What I want is some place closer so our transportation costs go down, and I want more beds.”

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.