Republican Kris Kobach favors having a private company rebuild and operate the state mental hospital in eastern Kansas, while his main rivals in the governor’s race argue that the state should be creating smaller, regional centers instead.
Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, said during a debate this week that the Legislature has been “idling” when it should have been moving forward with an existing plan from the state Department for Aging and Disability Services to expand Osawtomie State Hospital.
Kansas has faced questions about the 162-year-old hospital’s future since the federal government decertified it in December 2015 over safety and patient care issues, withholding up to $1 million a month. One treatment unit regained its certification two years later.
The department last year proposed having Correct Care Recovery Solutions, based in Nashville, build a 210-bed replacement hospital at a cost of between $100 million and $175 million. But skeptical lawmakers forbade the department from moving ahead without their permission — and they haven’t acted.
“We could expand the number of beds and not have, as taxpayers, to spend more money to do it,” Kobach said during the debate. “That’s something we can do right away.”
State officials acknowledge Kansas has a shortage of beds for treating people with severe mental illnesses and too many end up in local jails. Osawatomie has 206 beds, and under the department’s plan, the state would continue to operate its certified, 60-bed unit, for a total of 270 beds.
But with that plan on hold, the department is preparing to seek proposals for regional centers with no more than 20 beds each. Democratic governor nominee Laura Kelly, a veteran state senator from Topeka, said during the last debate that Kansas should rely on such centers when bolstering its mental health system.
Kelly said expanding Osawatomie is “exactly the wrong direction.” She said Osawatomie, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, and its sister hospital in Larned, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest of Wichita, “are far away from people.”
“They need to be receiving those services in their communities near their families, near their work,” she said.
Independent candidate Greg Orman, a Kansas City businessman, agreed: “Then people get mental health care in their own communities where they have their support networks around them, and ultimately the get better faster.”
The Osawatomie hospital complex on 391 acres has buildings decades old and some are abandoned. State officials have said for years that it has had trouble recruiting staff.
But state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from nearby Louisburg, said Kansas still needs state hospital beds for long-term treatment. She and local officials had misgivings about privatizing the hospital but said they became comfortable with the idea through presentations by the department and Correct Care.
“There is very much a need for us to have a state-of-the-art facility,” she said.