State sees shortage of mental health providers


State News

December 27, 2019 - 10:10 AM

TOPEKA, Kansas — It typically took Walt Hill more than a year to recruit a psychiatrist to northwest Kansas. Now he doesn’t even bother.

Instead, the executive director of the High Plains Mental Health Center relies on out-of-state doctors willing to work remotely, treating patients through video conference.

For years, the center has used remote appointments with local psychiatrists to reach patients in far-flung corners of its coverage area, which spans 20 largely rural counties.

But recently, Hill said, it’s been almost impossible to find psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses to do even that. He’s had to turn to providers who conference in from Kansas City, Texas and Tennessee.

Like the rest of the United States, Kansas is seeing an increase in patients seeking mental health treatment. But the state can’t find enough doctors, nurses and therapists to treat them. Providers say the problem is worse in the state’s least-populated rural areas, where clinic jobs can stay open for years at a time. 

“Fewer and fewer individuals are going into these professions,” Hill said. “We’re seeing a demographic challenge, a crisis coming.”

One measure from the federal government suggests only nine of the counties in Kansas have enough psychiatrists, and they’re mostly in urban areas: Johnson, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Douglas, Harvey, Sedgwick, Marion, McPherson and Miami counties.

There are 431 psychiatrists actively licensed to practice in Kansas, according to the state’s Board of Healing Arts. One calculation by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the state needs 53 more to meet its needs.

The state’s community mental health centers, like the one Hill manages, face a particular challenge. The centers treat people regardless of their ability to pay. Some say they’ve had to absorb more patients since the state-run mental health hospital in Osawatomie reduced its admissions drastically.

Hill said High Plains Mental Health Center hasn’t experienced that so much. But as reimbursement rates from insurance companies have stagnated, the center has had to raise its base fees to cover costs.

The center sees 6,000 patients a year, about half of whom need medication. Some have to wait as long as six weeks for an initial appointment with a provider.

“It’s stretched. Some people do have to take on a lot more cases,” he said. “That is just way too long for people to have to wait.”


Hiring issues

In some ways, telemedicine has helped, said Greg Hennen, executive director of the Four County Mental Health Center in Independence. But it’s also made it worse.