Mental health hospital slated for Wichita could solve some problems but faces staffing questions

By Jacob Unruh | Wichita Journalism Collaborative

It’s not entirely clear when or where it will be constructed, or exactly how big it will be. But a state mental health hospital is coming to Wichita.

A $15 million infusion approved by the Kansas State Finance Council this past December will bring a state-run institution with at least 50 beds to add capacity and reduce the wait for services.

The county plans to request another $25 million from COVID-19 relief funds recently made available by the state. A decision on that money should come by the end of March.

However, there are a number of questions that still need to be answered. And there are the concerns that the addition of beds for patients will be undercut by the state’s shortage of mental health care workers needed to staff it and existing facilities.

While the project will get underway by the end of this year, Scott Brunner, the deputy secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, says the earliest to expect new patients is late 2024 or early 2025. The location and contractors have not been determined, but a commission in Sedgwick County is expected to make recommendations soon.  

The funding for the hospital was the conclusion of a year-long effort by policymakers in the Kansas Legislature and Sedgwick County to address the shortage of mental health beds in the area. Providers in the region, such as Comcare and Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, are often overcrowded, requiring patients to be transported to state hospitals two hours away in Larned or Osawatomie for care. Almost 20% of the patients admitted to Larned or Osawatomie state hospitals come from Sedgwick County.

“We are filling up Larned and Osawatomie with our folks, which then causes problems for these other outlying counties, of trying to get their people in, in a timely manner,” Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. “So I think by doing this, it also is going to create an environment where, at least here in the south-central region, all these folks are being treated here, which then opens up bed space for the rest of the state.”

Easter says that the 50 beds will be divided evenly between competency evaluations, where a judge orders a test to determine whether the mental health of someone in jail will be a factor in a trial, and involuntary commitment, when a person is determined to be a danger to themselves or others and is in need of care. 

There is no location in Sedgwick County that provides competency evaluations, which forces people to wait in jail. While Easter says the average wait time for these evaluations is currently around 200 days, he believes the new beds will bring the delay down significantly.

“The ideal would be the judge orders the evaluation, say it’s on a Monday, and within that week, the evaluation is done,” Easter said. “I think that if they’re able to get the funding to put the health hospital down there, I think that’s a very attainable goal.”

Involuntary care patients are usually screened by Comcare to determine whether they qualify for state mental health care. Robyn Chadwick, president of Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, says that the key factors involved in whether a patient qualifies include previous stays at a hospital, levels of violence and the severity of the mental illness.

Chadwick explains that since St. Joseph began accepting people who qualify for state hospital care in 2015, it has continually had about 10 state-level patients in its beds, usually for longer periods of time compared to non-state patients. She says that the new hospital will free up bed space for other patients.

“On any given day, there are 10 to 20 patients in our emergency department awaiting admission into our inpatient unit,” Chadwick said. “But we can’t admit until we discharge.”

When a patient is sent to Larned or Osawatomie for an evaluation or commitment, the expenses for transportation fall on the sending facility, whether it is Comcare, St. Joseph, or the jail. In the case of the jail, those costs fall on the taxpayer.

“Taxpayers in Sedgwick County are paying for the time in jail, the taxpayers are paying for the district attorney, the taxpayers are paying for the courts, and the taxpayers are paying for us to run them to Larned for the evaluation,” Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis said.

Brunner argues that the beds in Sedgwick County will allow patients from the region to receive community support that they cannot get in surrounding areas.

“Having that acute level of care closer to where the person lives, I think makes a lot of difference in terms of maintaining connections with treatment, maintaining connections to community resources, maintaining connections to housing and employment and other kinds of things,” Brunner said. “Transport time alone, somebody’s going to Osawatomie for two weeks of intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment, they might lose their apartment, they might lose their job.

“If we could do that closer to where they live, I think there’s a real advantage to people to get that care closer to home.”

Brunner says that the construction of the state hospital in Sedgwick County is a step in the mental health model in Kansas that shifts centers toward “certified community behavioral health clinics,” where patients can receive support from their community during and after their time being directly treated.

“Our goals are to intervene when somebody is in an acute crisis, stabilize them, and then get back into outpatient treatment in the community where they live for that kind of ongoing care,” Brunner said. “Our average length of stay at the hospitals for a mental health crisis is around 14 days…We aren’t building a system where we’re going to house people long term, in some remote location, in a hospital.”

The plan doesn’t come without a set of concerns. Primarily, mental health experts are worried that the new hospital will face trouble with staffing. Especially given the broad shortage of mental health workers across the state.

Amy Campbell, a lobbyist and coordinator for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, points out that while the Coalition supports the new hospital, it could pull employees from already-existing hospitals. This could result in more beds being closed and no net capacity increase.

“Yes, getting new beds open in the Wichita area is very important, but just contracting for a 50-bed facility is not going to get that done,” Campbell said.

Last September, the Kansas Board of Regents approved a new joint University of Kansas-Wichita State University biomedical campus that’s expected to be completed in 2026. Dennis says that this campus has the potential to provide staffing for the new hospital and other care centers in the region.

“Working with KU and Wichita State University for the new biomedical campus here, we can start training the social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, the doctors that we need to be able to staff not only this, but our Comcare crisis center,” Dennis said.

While most leaders are nonetheless excited about the proposal, there is a recognition that the work to provide quality mental health care in Kansas doesn’t end with this facility. Campbell said that the next steps should be to increase funding and support for existing state hospitals, build more hospitals and provide substance abuse treatment with a focus on community support at a local level.

“The stronger our community based services are able to perform, the less pressure we will have for these inpatient beds, which then allows our hospitals and inpatient facilities to operate more effectively and efficiently,” she said. “Adding the beds in the Wichita area is one piece of a very large puzzle that we need to accomplish in order to bring Kansas out of the very low rankings that we have relating to the prevalence of suicide and access to behavioral health treatment.

“I’m afraid that people are looking for a quick fix, and that’s just not going to happen. These problems are occurring across the country, and we’re going to have to come at it from the whole picture if we want to see real improvement for families.”

Jacob Unruh is a student at Wichita State University and a reporting intern for the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community groups.