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We have a mental health crisis in Kansas — it’s time to expand Medicaid


We have a mental health crisis in Kansas — it’s time to expand Medicaid

Nov 28, 2023 | 4:33 am ET
By Robbin Cole
We have a mental health crisis in Kansas — it’s time to expand Medicaid
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly addresses a Medicaid expansion rally at the Statehouse on March 15, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Earlier this year, Mental Health America released its annual mental health rankings by state. They placed Kansas last in the nation. Let that sink in — last, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Although this is disappointing news, we’ve come together before to make progress. In 2021, Kansas became the first state in the nation to pass a transformative law that put us at the forefront of addressing our state’s mental health needs. This bipartisan bill established a new model for providing behavioral health services called the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic model.

It was a significant step in the right direction. Kansas has increased access to community-based mental health services and encouraged integration of behavioral health with physical health care. Our Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics are focused on helping patients increase their independence and stay active in their communities.

Lawmakers put partisanship aside, came together and worked on a solution to help Kansans. That is leadership. And I know the Legislature can work together again to address this crisis — and finally expand Medicaid.

Expansion would mean that 150,000 hardworking Kansans, who fall into the coverage “gap,” have access to affordable health care. Many folks in this gap are working and either aren’t offered or can’t afford private health coverage, and they make “too much” to qualify for Medicaid. But they don’t make enough to afford private healthcare coverage. Therefore, they have no health insurance.

So, what does it have to do with mental health?

Kansans with mental health care needs make up nearly one-third of the folks in the gap. If we expanded, thousands of Kansans could get the mental health care they need when they need it.

Simple as that.

Expansion greatly enhances the use of mental health services and enables health care providers to offer new services. We’ve found that in states that have expanded Medicaid, people are less likely to skip medications due to cost and more likely to seek regular care for their ongoing health conditions while reporting improvements in their overall health.

Kansas is one of only 10 states left in the nation that has not expanded Medicaid — that’s another ranking we don’t want to be known for. We are surrounded by states that have expanded: Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma.

And whether we expand or not, we are paying for our neighbors who have. Federal tax dollars cover 90% of Medicaid expansion costs. The federal income taxes Kansans pay are funding better health coverage for 40 other states, but not here.

The University of Kansas Institute for Policy and Social Research estimates that Kansas lost an estimated $4.9 billion in federal Medicaid funding from 2014 to 2021, in addition to $6.62 billion in related economic activity for failure to expand.

That makes no sense.

But our state legislative leaders won’t even allow the issue to come to the floor for discussion. Polls show that the majority of Kansans support Medicaid expansion, because it will lower the health care costs for everyone. But our legislators aren’t even allowed to debate it.

There are no excuses left.

Imagine the social and economic impact on Kansas if all Kansas children and families had access to affordable health care. Imagine the impact on Kansas hospitals and other health care providers, especially those in rural areas, if they could get paid for the services they provide to those in this gap.

No state wants to be 51st in the nation in anything. We certainly don’t want to be 51st in mental health. Let’s urge the state of Kansas to do what it must to improve upon Kansas’ last place mental health ranking.

Robbin Cole is the chief executive officer of Pawnee Mental Health Services, a licensed community mental health center and substance use treatment facility serving approximately 7,000 people a year in 10 counties in north central Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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