Lawmakers celebrate ‘biggest change in mental health in Kansas in 30 years’

By: - June 10, 2021 2:50 pm

From left, Rep. John Eplee, Rep. Brenda Landwehr and House Speaker Ron Rcykman participate in a ceremony Thursday at the Statehouse to mark the passage of legislation that will invest millions in local mental health centers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rep. Brenda Landwehr says she cried when the House passed legislation to certify and fund community behavioral health clinics.

The Wichita Republican, who chairs the health committee, had worked to pass some sort of reform measure for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the need to address mental health services in Kansas.

“This is the biggest change in mental health in Kansas in 30 years,” Landwehr said. “That’s how big this is.”

She joined other lawmakers and Gov. Laura Kelly at a news conference Thursday to celebrate the passage in April of House Bill 2208. One section of the legislation requires state agencies to certify 26 community-based mental health centers as behavioral health clinics within three years and set new rates for the services they provide. The state estimates this investment eventually will total $74 million annually.

After the closing of a state hospital in 1997 and the relocation in 2003 of the Menninger Clinic from Topeka to Houston, Kansas has struggled to “get back to where we need to be,” Landwehr said.

“In all ages and all incomes, it doesn’t discriminate with how much you have or how great your life is,” Landwehr said. “Mental illness is real. It’s a disability.”

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and family physician, said the bill is the most historic piece of mental health legislation in decades.

“It will provide more resources and more stability for our mental health clinics,” he said.

The bill requires the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to certify six facilities by May 1, 2022, three more by July 1, 2022, an additional nine by July 1, 2023, and an additional eight by July 1, 2024.

Randy Callstrom, CEO of the Wyandotte Behavioral Health Network and board president of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers in Kansas, said the new certification emphasizes recovery, wellness, trauma-informed care and physical behavioral health integration.

The new clinics are “specifically designed to address many of the challenges our system currently faces, including the suicide crisis, barriers to timely access, delayed care, overburdened jails and emergency departments, and workforce shortages,” Callstrom said.

House Bill 2208 was the product of negotiations between the House and Senate that led to the bundling of several pieces of legislation. The bill includes provisions to enable rural hospitals to receive federal health care reimbursements, and authorizes licensed out-of-state physicians to practice telemedicine in Kansas.

The Senate passed the bill 34-4, and the House vote was 120-2.

The governor said the lessons she learned early in her career, when she worked at mental health institutions in other states, continue to guide her policy priorities.

“As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, provisions in this legislation are more critical than ever,” Kelly said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.