Kansas inmates wait months for treatment due to shortage of mental health hospital beds

Local hospitals, jails say they are overburdened with patients

By: - October 3, 2022 12:07 pm
The state of Kansas faces a federal class action lawsuit over delays in mental health evaluations at the chronically understaffed Larned State Hospital. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from KDADS video)

With a shortage of available beds at Larned State Hospital, local governments have to make accommodations for mentally unstable patients. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from KDADS video)

TOPEKA — Local government officials urged Kansas lawmakers to fund more mental health services, saying the shortage of mental health beds is pushing understaffed hospitals and jails to the brink. 

Larned State Hospital is the largest psychiatric facility in the state, used by the western two-thirds of Kansas. With a shortage of available beds there, workers at community hospitals and jails in western Kansas are picking up the slack, housing mentally unstable patients without state reimbursement.  

Cases of people deemed a danger to themselves or others are reviewed by the district attorney’s office, and they are sent to the county jail until a hospital bed is ready. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said the cost of housing these defendants is about $89 per day. 

Bennett said he knew of one case where a man accused of murder was deemed mentally incompetent. The judge ordered the man to go to Larned in July 2021, but he was kept in the Sedgwick County jail until his admittance on June 22, 2022.

“The issue is that there are insufficient beds at Larned State Hospital,” Bennett said in testimony submitted to the Sept. 29 Special Committee on Mental Health Beds, asking legislators to resolve the issue. 

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeffrey Easter also urged lawmakers to create more mental health beds, saying that the county had 36 inmates waiting for a mental health facility, with an average wait time of around five and half months for each inmate to be placed. 

One inmate has been waiting for more than a year to be sent to the Larned Mental Health Facility. Easter said the inmate was paralyzed from the waist down and had a history of self-harm. The inmate has been sent to the hospital more than 10 times for self-inflicted wounds. 

While he is restrained, Easter said the system didn’t have the resources to treat him properly, especially since a staffing shortage at the jail meant they had to take away the inmate’s 24-hour surveillance. 

“We have taken all sharp objects from him, but he still finds an item to cause paper cuts that then become infected,” Easter said. “Recently, we had to take the one deputy away due to extremely low staffing. The inmate has started to cut himself again, mainly utilizing his fingernails or the medical bed we provide for him, while housed in our 24 hour staffed clinic.” 

Around 30% to 33% of the inmate population have some sort of mental illness, Easter said. 

“Sedgwick County needs these additional beds to take pressure off the overwhelmed state hospitals but would also create a quicker avenue for mental health evaluations to take place and restoration of charged inmates,” Easter said. 

In Finney County, authorities are also struggling to address inmate’s mental health needs, working with limited resources and a shortage of 12 officers in the jail. Lon Pishny, chair of the Finney County Board of Commissioners, said inmates in the county have a wait time of three to nine months for mental health evaluations or transferral to state-operated mental facility. 

About 80% of inmates suffer from mental illness, drug addiction or both, Pishny estimated. One inmate has been waiting for a court-ordered mental health evaluation since August of 2021. 

Finney County has an annual budget allocation of about $190,000 for addressing mental health concerns, with $150,000 spent on services from the county’s contracted behavioral health agency. About $40,000 is allocated in the sheriff’s annual budget for mental health services, to be added to the county’s contract with the firm that provides health care for the inmates. 

Pishny said the county needed state assistance to help overburdened county jails. 

“There are ‘costs’ not directly reflected in a financial budget, such as human capital costs, due to emotional stress and physical abuse suffered particularly by our jailers, who have been spit upon, urinated upon and physically injured by inmates impaired by mental illness,” Pishny said. “These jailers are not trained, nor expected to be, mental health counselors.”

To fix this budgetary drain, some want lawmakers to create a reimbursement program. Audrey Dunkel, vice president of government relations for the Kansas Hospital Association, asked the Legislature to allocate $5 million annually to pay hospitals, law enforcement and local governments for costs related to behavioral health patients. 

Dunkel said understaffed hospitals were being further drained by having to assign staff to mental health patients.

“Medical staff, law enforcement officers and others must take time away from doing their jobs caring for other patients and protecting the community, resulting in overtime costs and an overstressed system in communities where hospitals and law enforcement are short-staffed,” Dunkel said.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a lawsuit against the state over delays in mental health evaluations at Larned. The lawsuit said individuals who face criminal charges have had to wait behind bars for as long as 13 months before getting a pretrial competency evaluation.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.