Earlier this year, a 34-year-old man with a serious mental illness appeared in my courtroom after his father petitioned to have him committed to a state hospital. The evidence showed that this man had threatened to harm himself and a family member. I concluded he met the threshold for involuntary commitment — that he was a danger to himself or others due to a mental illness — and ordered him sent to Osawatomie State Hospital.
Two weeks later, the man was released from Osawatomie and I issued “outpatient treatment orders,” meaning he had to continue receiving treatment at Wyandot Center, our community mental health center. Unfortunately, he did not comply with the treatment, so I ordered him back to Osawatomie. He was released two weeks later, but again he did not comply with his treatment. Again, I ordered him back to Osawatomie.
As I write, this man, who desperately needs extensive inpatient care and treatment, has been in Osawatomie since June 25. The hospital system has been playing ping-pong with his life, complicating his treatment and exacerbating his symptoms, all because it does not have the capacity to meet the demands placed on it.
Last year Osawatomie suspended voluntary admissions after federal officials threatened to stop Medicare payments if the hospital did not address certain deficiencies. Since then, its capacity has plummeted from 206 beds to 146.
Last month, Osawatomie reached its capacity and issued a moratorium on admissions. Judges and mental health centers were notified by mail. Many did not receive the notice until after the moratorium was announced.
Like other judges, I had been working with our local agencies to do what I could, legally, to keep as many people as possible out of the state hospital. This saves the state resources and avoids the trauma that a person with mental illness may experience when forced to receive treatment outside of his or her community.
But it isn’t always possible, or safe, to do this.
Some people’s symptoms are so severe that they must receive care and treatment in a hospital. As judges, we must have a place to send people who we determine are a danger to themselves or others — someplace that cannot deny admittance due to insurance or dangerous behaviors, as most private hospitals can. This has been the role and responsibility of state hospitals around the country for decades.
What happens when our hospitals can’t meet the demand? In addition to the man I mentioned, some people have spent hours in local hospital emergency rooms. Others have been sent to Rainbow Services Inc., the crisis stabilization center in Kansas City, Kan. A few have ended up in jail. Some have sat for hours in law enforcement custody, tying up resources. Others have ended up on the streets. None of these places have the security and staff to provide the level of treatment that an inpatient state mental health facility can.
Last month, The Star ran a story about a man released from Osawatomie after a one-week stay. He was there on a court order. After his release he allegedly killed a man. He is now in Larned State Hospital, charged with second-degree murder.
I do not want to see this tragedy repeated, and I especially do not want to see it repeated in my county.
It is time for the state to invest in its hospital system and bring Osawatomie back to a capacity that can serve the people who need it the most: people with serious mental illness. It is time for the state to stop playing ping-pong with so many lives.
Kathleen Lynch is a judge in the Wyandotte County District Court.