County Update: Commissioner Fast examines ‘the price we pay’ with cuts to mental health program funding

District 1 Commissioner Becky Fast.

For the past several years, the Shawnee Mission Post has given each member of the area’s delegation to the statehouse the chance to share updates with our readers about what they’re working on in the Topeka through our Capitol Update columns. In recent months, we’ve heard from a number of readers who said they’d like to get similar updates from members of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners as well. So today we launch our County Update series. Each week, you’ll hear from a member of the Board of County Commissioners about what issues they’re paying attention to and the thinking behind some of their positions. (We extended the invitation to each member of the board. District 5 Commissioner Michael Ashcraft informed us he would not be participating).

We start today with an update from District 1 Commissioner Becky Fast.

Johnson County’s mental health system has struggled in recent years after a decade of state and federal funding cuts. State funding for community mental health centers is currently at the 2008 level. The consequences are dire for youth and adults living with mental health conditions, resulting in skyrocketing suicide rates, increased incarceration, homelessness, and unnecessary hospitalizations.

There is now a suicide every four days in Johnson County. Johnson County Mental Health Department is only able to meet 50% of the identified need. Recent county jail admission screenings report that 40% of the individuals entering have an assessed mental health condition. Housing an inmate costs the county about $150 a day. Investing in prevention and treatment is less costly and greatly improves the lives of our citizens.

The state’s funding cuts have occurred as demand for public mental health services have increased. Police officers from the 11 cities within County Commission District 1 all report spending more and more of their time addressing mental health needs of their residents. Due to the state funding gaps, Johnson County Mental Health has implemented a co-responder program through the county. These city-funded partnerships provide a mental health professional to accompany police officers on calls that involving potential mental health situation.

In addition, Kansas’ failure to take advantage of federal funds for Medicaid expansion is resulting in local taxpayers paying for additional services. Johnson County provides over $7 million in charitable care for mental health and public health services and over $2.2 million in uncompensated care for emergency medical care through its ambulance services. This works out to approximately 1 mill in property taxes that could be significantly reduced by expanding Medicaid.

Johnson County school superintendents united last session to ask the Kansas Legislature for more funding for community mental health centers. They recognized that schools can’t do it themselves and they need resources to get students help, before they end up in situations requiring hospitalization. Johnson County has initiated a pilot co-responder program with the Gardner-Edgerton School District to begin to address this need.

As your County Commissioner, I serve as the Board Liaison to the Johnson County Mental Health Department. I have been a vocal advocate and leader on the Commission to fund additional positions for early detection and crisis intervention services. I have advocated for seamless integration between our County Mental Health Department and the mental health services provided in our county jails. Currently, mental health treatment provided in the county jail is privatized.

The proposed 2020 budget includes additional funding for a mobile response and after-hours clinician which I advocated for during my campaign and since taking office. I have also asked for further consideration by the Commission to fund additional case managers to provide mental health screenings and crisis stabilization during brief jail admissions.

Taxpayers have the right to expect that resources spent on mental health services are spent wisely. Public dollars should be spent on services that work in preventing or alleviating mental health crises and in fostering recovery and independence.

Johnson County pays a high price for Kansas not participating in Medicaid expansion and for the state’s cuts to mental health. Rather than saving Kansans money, these cuts to services simply shift financial responsibility to emergency rooms, community hospitals, law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities, and then ultimately added to your local property tax mill levy. With adequate funding levels from the federal, state, and local government then youth and adults living with serious mental illness can and do achieve recovery and independence in their lives.