TOPEKA — State officials overseeing mental health hospitals and an employee labor union disagreed Monday over whether Larned State Hospital was staffed to minimum necessary levels.

According to a state email released by the Kansas Organization for State Employees, the psychiatric hospital in Larned fell below minimum standards in all units Monday. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has been working to resolve staffing shortages there and at the state’s other psychiatric hospital in Osawatomie.

Emails released by KOSE also showed staffing is a continual problem for the hospital, which has had to ask workers to come in.

KDADS Secretary Tim Keck said staffing did not fall too low, but was a complex issue and that there was not a fixed staffing level every day.

“It really fluctuates a lot based on the census and the acuity of the patients that are there, but it’s my understanding that we did not fall below a level that is safe,” Keck said.

Larned State Hospital, which sits on 78 acres in south-central Kansas, has been troubled by staffing shortages. Keck said approximately 29 percent of its jobs are vacant. Vacancy rates for nurses sit between 20 percent and 25 percent, and the rate for mental health technicians sits between 13 percent and 15 percent, he said. Keck said those rates had improved since last year.

KOSE Executive Director Robert Choromanski said workers have had to work 16-hour shifts. He called the shortage a “perpetual crisis” and said he thought it would be the next severe problem for the state.

“That’s the next powder keg ready to blow,” Choromanski said.

While the hospital remains short on personnel, emails show employees often are asked to volunteer to pick up extra shifts. If no one raises a hand, workers might be required to work overtime, Choromanski said.

KDADS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said in an email the hospital was having a problem with employees calling in to say they will not make it to work.

“We have adequate staffing for all shifts if staff shows up for work,” de Rocha said. “If we don’t, some have to work overtime to ensure adequate staffing. The vast majority of our staff is responsible and dedicated to our patients and to the hospital. But staff is asked to pick up extra shifts for staff members who call in before their shift to advise they will not be coming to work.”

Choromanski said working overtime has created a negative environment and state workers are overwhelmed.

“I mean, how many times can you work 16-hour shifts before you’re like, ‘Hey, I have a life to live. I have a family to take care of,’ ” Choromanski said.

Last year, legislators appropriated $1 million for staffing at Larned, and some employees at the hospital have gotten pay raises. In July, Gov. Sam Brownback boosted pay for the hospital’s mental health/developmental disability technicians to compete with raises received by workers at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility.

KDADS also has been working to alleviate the situation. Keck said KDADS had made an effort to improve the culture and morale at the hospital, recruit more creatively and use employees from different departments in the hospital to put in overtime in other departments where they might have experience. He said it was possible the department could look at raising pay.

Choromanski said he didn’t think the department was doing enough. He said he thought pay was too low and health insurance premiums had risen.

In the meantime, the hospital spent $1.78 million on overtime during the first six months of the year, according to data released by KOSE.

“When they pay extra overtime, it costs the agency even more money than if they just paid people a decent amount of money,” Choromanski said.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Republican who chairs the KanCare oversight and Senate health committees, said she was concerned about the hospital’s staffing but had not heard it fell below minimum levels. She said she thought low pay might be part of the problem but that KDADS had been working to recruit employees. If that plan isn’t working, it might be time to revisit a solution, she said.