One of Rep. Troy Waymaster’s constituents struggled with the state’s beleaguered KanCare program for six months trying to straighten out a billing problem with their elderly parent’s rest home.

To no avail. Finally they called for help from Waymaster, who represents the 109th District.

“I made one call,” Waymaster said, “and it was miraculously approved. …It’s sad that we pick up the phone and call and it’s done.”

Waymaster made the comments Thursday during a Legislative Forum with the governing board of the High Plains Mental Health Center, 208 E. Seventh, in Hays. 

At-large board member Roy Hustead, Hays, had asked the handful of legislators at the forum why Kansas continues to employ the private contractor managing KanCare when Maximus Inc.’s troubled performance is widely acknowledged.

“If they were employees of yours, they wouldn’t be employees of yours — unless they were definitely siblings,” Hustead said.

High Plains, which provides mental health and substance use treatment, sponsored the forum for current legislators and candidates running against them in the November elections.

The center is funded in small part by the 20 northwest Kansas counties it serves. But, like many of the state’s other community mental health centers, it gets 62 percent of its funding from fees for its services — and 75 percent of that is from Medicaid, said executive director Walt Hill in an interview before the forum.

In 2017, expanding Medicaid so more poor people would have insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act had the bipartisan support of Kansas legislators. But Gov. Brownback vetoed the move, and instead declined federal dollars to expand Medicaid eligibility.

“Kansas has one of the highest income cut-offs for people to be eligible for Medicaid of any of the states,” Hill explained. “In some states if you are at 30 to 40 percent of the poverty level, you are eligible for Medicaid. In Kansas that’s not the case. So it’s hard for people to get Medicaid in Kansas, where if they lived in other states they’d be much more likely to be eligible.”

Hill hopes the issue will come up again in the next legislative session. Kansas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly has indicated an interest in expanding Medicaid, he said.

“She’s been a strong supporter of mental health funding and has been a strong ally of mental health,” he said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach has been quoted saying he opposes expanding Medicaid.

Hill is co-chair of the public policy committee of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas Inc. The association is requesting $13.2 million for the state’s community mental health centers to restore them to 2007 funding levels and accounting for inflation.

Stockton Mayor Kim Thomas is a Democrat running against Republican incumbent Rep. Ken Rahjes for the 110th District seat. Thomas said adequate mental health funding is a great concern.

“I believe in Medicaid expansion,” Thomas said. “In this district, there are five hospitals. A lot of the hospitals are very concerned about that.”

Rahjes, who’s been in the Legislature now for three years, said the state’s school finance challenge is a major concern.

“But many of us fought hard to bring back the funding for mental health,” he said. “We need to make sure the programs that are there are getting funded.”

High Plains has lost more than $1.2 million in state funding over the past 10 years under the administration of former Gov. Sam Brownback, with only about half of that slowly restored in more recent years, said Hill.

In 2017, the High Plains staff served 5,858 clients. High Plains has branch offices in Colby, Woodland, Norton, Osborne and Phillipsburg. It has community outreach offices in Atwood, Hoxie, Oberlin, Quinter, Russell, Smith Center, WaKeeney, Hill City, Plainville, LaCrosse, St. Francis and Oakley.

It’s estimated one in four American adults struggle with a mental health problem. The association points out that when people don’t get needed treatment, they may end up in emergency rooms, or in state hospitals or jails, which are all more expensive than community based services.

Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, is running for re-election to the House seat he holds in the 111th District. Phelps said he’s concerned about the growing number of suicides in rural areas and among teens, as well as the large number of incarcerated Kansans who are in need of mental health treatment.

“It’s imperative we bring that level of funding back up to where we’re taking care of people,” Phelps said.

Rep. Leonard Mastroni, LaCrosse, is a Republican representing the 117th District. He was a long-time judge and handled cases out of the state’s largest psychiatric facility, Larned State Hospital. Funding is a profound concern, he indicated.

“I’m very watchful for Larned and for our community mental health centers,” Mastroni said. “I believe in them.”

The number of people on Medicaid in western Kansas is less than in other areas of the state, leaving more people here uninsured, Hill said before the forum.

“Poverty here looks different,” he said. “For example, we often don’t have apparent homelessness. But people are homeless living with family or friends. Often people don’t want to apply for Medicaid. There’s a pretty strong sense of pull-yourself-up by your boot straps, and people don’t want to be on what they view as welfare.”

High Plains Mental Health Center treats one in 25 people in the area, Hill said. But the estimates are that one in three might need some sort of mental health care, and one in five for sure, he said.

He hopes the Legislature takes up the issue of expanding Medicaid again.

“I’d like to see the debate happen again, and have an open discussion about what the needs are for poor Kansans, for their healthcare,” he said. “It would bring more resources to provide needed services, and less reliance on counties that are already strapped, and other state programs.”