Kansas officials have started an inquiry into the state’s treatment of a mentally ill patient suspected of killing a man in Kiowa County.
Brandon Brown, 30, is charged with second-degree murder in the beating death of 61-year-old Jerry Martinez. Brown and Martinez fought at an assisted living facility in Haviland, Kan., just three days after Brown’s release from Osawatomie State Hospital, where he had undergone seven days of treatment for violent behavior.
On Thursday, superintendent of state hospitals Bill Rein told a mental health committee the records of Brown’s treatment have been isolated and an inquiry into the case is underway.
“We have to get to the facts,” he said.
Never miss a local story.
The Star first reported the incident Sunday. Brown was sent to Osawatomie on May 7, state records show, after fighting with residents in Haviland. He was discharged May 14.
On May 17, he allegedly beat Martinez, who died in early June. Brown is now in custody in the state facility at Larned.
On Thursday, Kansas Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, sharply criticized the state’s handling of the Brown case.
“It seems like a huge failure of the system,” Moore said. “In my mind, at this moment, it’s the result of a system under stress that failed both these families.”
Rein and other state officials, citing privacy laws, did not comment on the specifics of the incident. But in general “obviously, there are things, especially in hindsight, you wish you would have done differently,” Rein said.
The incident will serve as an important backdrop to ongoing conversations about the state’s mental health system. Some critics say treating the mentally ill costs too much and doesn’t work, while others say the system is underfunded and understaffed.
Much of the attention is now focusing on the state hospital in Osawatomie, one of the two acute-care psychiatric hospitals in Kansas. Most of its patients are sent there involuntarily because they pose a threat to themselves or to others.
It’s designed for a maximum of roughly 200 patients at any one time. In 2014, it often exceeded that cap, forcing the institution to deny admittance to patients who might be treated at private or community-based mental health facilities — or held in area jails.
This year, Osawatomie’s daily population was further reduced because of construction at the facility. It now holds roughly 140 patients. At the same time, a recent study suggested the facility is understaffed by 40 percent on some days.
Critics, including Brown’s father, say the overcrowding may have contributed to the decision to release Brown prematurely. Some members of the study committee said Thursday there is evidence some patients are released too soon.
In June, Gov. Sam Brownback said the state may want to find alternative, less expensive ways to treat patients who are now sent to Osawatomie. And some committee members said Thursday that Kansas should figure out if it needs a large, acute-care psychiatric hospital with 200 beds or if there are better ways to treat the mentally ill.
“We need to decide what kind of hospital we want,” said Wes Cole, chairman of the Behavioral Health Services Planning Council in Kansas.
Others, though, said they are worried the state is considering a long-term reduction of space at Osawatomie even after the current construction ends. The hospital often serves as a relief valve for law enforcement officials who can’t treat severely mentally ill inmates.
“We think we don’t have enough beds now,” said Amy Campbell of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.
The Adult Continuum of Care Committee is expected to make recommendations later this month to the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, known as KDADS. It includes counselors, advocates for mentally ill patients, a judge and state lawmakers.
It spent Thursday sorting through the tangle of issues surrounding mental health care: insurance coverage, law enforcement, treatment strategies, substance abuse concerns and more.
It also talked about money.
Several members said the state’s overall spending on mental health care is insufficient to treat those who need help. Reducing or closing Osawatomie, they said, wouldn’t help protect patients and the public unless more money is spent in community-based systems or alternative treatment protocols.
Some said the state should reconsider expanding Medicaid to provide more coverage for the working poor who have mental illnesses.
Kansas continues to face budget problems. Brownback must cut an additional $50 million from state spending this fiscal year, and some believe mental health treatment may be on the block.
There was no firm indication of that Thursday. But KDADS official Doug Wallace warned colleagues against relying on extra cash to reconfigure mental health treatment in the state.
“We really need to be thinking, what is working in our current climate?” he said. “There’s no magic checkbook that’s going to pump a lot of additional funding into our system at this point.”