Kansas lawmakers spar over mental hospital’s safety issues

Kansas state Rep. Jim Ward, left, D-Wichita, listens to testimony about safety issues at Osawatomie State Hospital during a legislative committee as Sen. Michael O'Donnell, right, R-Wichita, follows along, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Ward says employees at the hospital should be fired over safety issues, including an employee's report that she was raped by a patient. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Democratic legislator called Tuesday for firings at one of Kansas’ two state mental hospitals because of safety problems reported by critical federal surveys, but a key Republican senator said lawmakers need to learn the facts before assessing blame.

Democratic Rep. Jim Ward, of Wichita, sparred publicly with GOP Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Shawnee, over Osawatomie State Hospital, about 45 miles south of the Kansas City area. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services notified the hospital earlier this month that Medicare would stop paying for patients’ care.

The federal agency’s notice came after a survey in November found a “systemic failure” to protect suicidal patients, adequately supervise care and perform required safety checks. It noted that an employee reported being raped in October by a patient who now faces a felony criminal charge. A follow-up survey this month said a male patient, “a known sex offender,” wasn’t supervised properly and engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.

Officials at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which runs the state’s mental hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned, said they’re addressing the safety issues and considering whether to appeal some of the findings. The first critical survey came as the state was addressing demands from federal officials for renovations and other changes at the hospital.

KDADS Secretary Kari Bruffett told a legislative oversight committee that the state could lose up to $900,000 a month in federal funds because the hospital isn’t certified by the federal government. Ward asked her, “Did anybody lose their job?”

Later, during a break in the meeting, Ward said, “If this happened in the private sector, where there was a systematic failure to provide basic services, somebody would get fired.”

Bruffett said she couldn’t discuss personnel matters.

“We’re not focused on blame,” she said, later adding, “It’s about, ‘How do you fix the problem?'”

Pilcher-Cook, chairwoman of the oversight committee, also leads the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee and said that panel will have hearings on Osawatomie after lawmakers open their next annual session Jan. 11. She said it was inappropriate for Ward to suggest now that hospital employees should be disciplined.

“Let’s get all the facts first and not point fingers before we know what the facts are,” she said.

Pilcher-Cook said legislators also need to examine the federal government’s demands for changes at Osawatomie.

Republican Sen. Jim Denning, of Overland Park, said last week that KDADS should delay efforts to regain federal certification for Osawatomie. He said renovations and other changes sought by federal officials probably are “a total waste of money.”

“We have to start looking for money to keep Osawatomie going,” Denning said.

Osawatomie dropped its capacity earlier this year to 146 patients from 206 to accommodate the renovations. KDADS officials said they learned in October that the state is expected to run the renovated space as if it were a separate hospital with its own nursing staff — adding new personnel costs.

Ward shook his head at some of Denning’s comments. The renovations — such as changes in ceilings, door knobs and water fountains — were aimed at lessening the risk that patients would commit suicide by hanging or strangling themselves.


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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