Gov. Sam Brownback reaffirmed his commitment to providing more treatment options for those dealing with serious and persistent mental illness.
“Our next great challenge is to make our state’s mental health safety net system more robust and effective,” Brownback told about 200 people gathered in the Capitol’s rotunda March 14 to hear his remarks as part of Mental Health Advocacy Day.
Brownback in January proposed an initiative to improve what he calls the “mental health safety net,” partially in response to the shooting massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school,
“There’s been a strong push in the system for 30 or 40 years now to move out of in-patient care and into a community-based system and that has been overall good,” Brownback told the advocates. “But we are also finding some major gaps in the system.”
Brownback officials say they plan to designate about a half dozen of the state’s community mental health centers as regional hubs where more intensive outpatient therapeutic and case-management services will be available to persons considered most at risk of landing in jail or a state mental hospital. Details of how their plan would work and which centers would be designated still are being worked out.
Budget committees in both the House and Senate have approved the $10 million requested by the governor for the initiative, which doesn’t call for any new spending but would instead redirect some current mental health program funding while forestalling the cuts to programs that many mental health advocates had expected.
Not a fix
“You can’t reprogram $10 million that was already in the budget and say we’re fixing the system,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas. “Not when the system has been cut to the degree that it’s been cut in the last few years.”
Administration officials have pointed to increased Medicaid expenditures as proof that overall spending on mental health services have increased. Advocates say while that is true, it also is true that state spending on grants to mental health centers have been cut by about $15 million in the same period. That money was critical, they say, because it was used to provide services to people not eligible for Medicaid but lacking other health coverage. The centers are required to treat people regardless of their ability to pay and the state grants are considered essential for covering those costs.
Kansas in recent years has spent about $375 million annually on mental health services, including state hospital expenditures. In per capita spending, it ranks about 20th among U.S. states, according to information collected by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
Not only about money
Jane Adams, director of Keys for Networking, a Topeka nonprofit organization that helps connect individuals and families to mental health services, agreed more funding for the programs was urgently needed but said the advocacy event at the Statehouse was about more than money.
She said Brownback’s participation was important because it gave the governor a chance to interact with dozens of children suffering from mental illness. And it gave the children and their families a sense that their lives and problems mattered to top state officials.
“I think it means everything to have real people who really use these services following him (Brownback) around and touching his jacket saying ‘here we are,’” Adams said.
Sixteen-year-old Paul Barras, from Independence, was one of 22 children and teenagers who receive services at the Four County Mental Health Center in Independence who traveled to Topeka with their families and counselors. He was beaming after emerging from an impromptu open house in the Governor’s Office.
“For him to take time to meet us and show us the office was a very important thing to me,” Barras said, noting that the previous two times he’d come up for Mental Health Advocacy Day the governor had not had time to meet with the group.
Paul’s mother, Dina Stahl, said the services her son receives have helped him cope with several emotional and behavioral disorders that briefly made it impossible for him to attend public school.
“If it wasn’t for the services he’s getting through Four County with case managers and counselors and also parent support, Paul would be in the Girard judicial system,” Stahl said.
Girard is a town in southeast Kansas.
Feeling good inside
Asked to explain how he thought he was being helped by the treatment he receives, Barras said, “It boosts my self-esteem from what they tell me and it makes me feel good inside.”
Organizers said about 400 people took part in the various advocacy day events, which included a question-and-answer session with Shawn Sullivan, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Sullivan spoke to an audience at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, which is two blocks from the Statehouse.
The advocates divided their time between the center and the Statehouse where many visited with legislators, making the case for stronger state support for mental health services.
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