Psych facilities need workers

Psychiatric facilities across Kansas added enough beds last year to potentially dramatically cut the number of children waiting for intensive mental health care.



June 14, 2021 - 10:24 AM

Psychiatric facilities across Kansas added enough beds last year to potentially dramatically cut the number of children waiting for intensive mental health care.

But about 100 of those spots remain empty — in large part because organizations can’t find workers.

In recent years, children have had to wait months for openings in specialized facilities that offer long-term psychiatric care. In mid-2018, the average wait neared 200 days.

The waits fell in 2019 and 2020. As of last month, the average wait stood at 44 days.

Yet 146 remain in line for their turn, even though 104 beds are open.

Despite significant efforts to expand capacity, the residential care centers have hit fresh roadblocks.

They’re struggling to compete in the current labor market. They need to fill shifts around the clock for physically and emotionally taxing work that sometimes pays less than $15 an hour.

AND HIKING wages is no simple task.

Take KidsTLC in Olathe. It’s searching for the money to make that happen, while also nudging the state of Kansas to help it explore other incentives. Those could range from college tuition waivers and signing bonuses to subsidies for health insurance or child care.

KidsTLC bought land in March 2020 to add another 50 beds for children.

The expansion included specialized units for children with the most severe traumas and disorders, who often face the longest waits for placement — such as a program for victims of sex abuse who lash out sexually.

That work finished in December, nearly doubling KidsTLC’s residential capacity. It hoped to fill the spots in two or three months, but 45 of the new beds remain empty.

“We had space, we were licensed, and were feeling just exceptional about that and being able to make a significant dent in that waitlist,” CEO Erin Dugan said. “And then it became really hard to hire staff.”

Nonprofit facilities offer more than 400 beds for long-term psychiatric care of youths across Kansas. Many of those slots were added within the past year and a half as the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly worked to license more beds and reduce wait times.

“So we are proud of the improvement,” said Andrew Brown, the state’s commissioner of behavioral health services, “but ideally we would like to get to the point where people didn’t have to wait even a month, right? We’d like to get to the point where the average time is about a week or less.”

Psychiatric residential treatment facilities are for children and youths whose conditions don’t improve through other care. They may struggle with severe depression, for example, or attachment disorders resulting from childhood abuse.

Those services are different from acute mental health care. Children at risk of harming themselves, for example, can get immediate short-term care. But when they walk out of the hospital, the residential program that some may need for weeks or months of follow-up treatment takes longer to get into.

KidsTLC wants to fill its empty beds, but won’t until it has the personnel to do so safely. It has almost 300 workers but wants about 425.

The agency hasn’t struggled to recruit and retain therapists and other salaried specialists. Hourly staff trained to work on site 24-7 are a different matter. Dugan hopes more applicants — who must be at least 21 years old — will materialize as the pandemic winds down.

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