Nearly 20 years ago, the Kansas Legislature had the foresight to take steps that would save what was then known as the University of Kansas Hospital from impending ruin.
By allowing it to split from state control, they gave the now sprawling health care system a competitive edge. It has flourished ever since.
How times change.
Today, the same political body’s lack of vision is threatening to undermine the massive institutional improvements that lawmakers’ predecessors made possible. Talk about coming full circle.
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The state’s senators and representatives have failed to exempt the University of Kansas Health System from a law that will allow concealed weapons to be carried in the state’s public buildings starting in July.
Already, executives are hearing from medical students who say they are hesitant to complete their residency in a place where guns are allowed. Patients say they will go elsewhere for care. Other hospitals, once eager to transfer their charges to the many highly specialized programs in the KU Health System, are warning that such arrangements are likely to slow when guns are permitted.
The perception of an unsafe environment is their reality.
Patients can and will choose to go elsewhere. Come July, the KU Health System will be the only such health care center in the area that will allow guns to be carried on the premises. Hospitals in Missouri are exempt from laws that allow people to carry guns more freely.
For health system officials, the grim prospects on the Kansas side of the state line are dredging up fears that many of their hard-fought gains of the past two decades, as well as their national reputation, will come unraveled.
And it’s all because the Legislature has failed to act.
The situation was dire back in 1998.
The hospital was projected to begin losing $20 million annually by 2000. Buildings leaked when it rained. Finances were so tight that the then-CEO joked that the hospital beds had been bought during the Carter administration.
Supplies and equipment for surgeries were borrowed from other hospitals, with cabs shuttling medical devices from benevolent medical centers willing to help out.
Patient numbers plummeted, hampering research and teaching. Patient satisfaction rates were some of the lowest in the nation.
But the Kansas Legislature agreed to a monumental change.
They severed ties between the hospital and the state’s bureaucratic governance, allowing it to separate from the board of regents overseeing colleges and universities. The hospital became an independent public authority.
Since that time, $1.5 billion has been invested. In-patient census counts doubled and then doubled again. The entire system is expanding fast.
The KU Health System doesn’t need another overhaul. It just needs lawmakers to get out of the way of progress. Allowing guns in a hospital throws up an unnecessary roadblock.
And yet, the Legislature has not been able to rally enough votes to take the simple step of carving out a concealed-carry exemption for these facilities.