High Plains Mental Health Center has started a partnership with the Ellis County Health Department to provide therapy onsite one day a week to people visiting the department at 2507 Canterbury Dr.

Walt Hill, executive director of the nonprofit mental health agency, told the Ellis County Commissioners at their regular meeting Monday evening that the health department program is similar to one with Hays Medical Center.

“We send a staff member who can see patients who your staff refer for treatment, and have a one-stop shop,” Hill told the commissioners. “We’ve also done this three days a week with Hays Med at Hays Family Practice office. We find if we go out to where patients are … they can be seen there as opposed to having to walk in the door of a mental health center, which still sometimes has some degree of stigma.”

High Plains supplies mental health services to 20 counties in northwest Kansas. Monday evening Hill gave the commissioners his annual report on the agency’s 2018 activity.

Hill’s report is in advance of county budget talks next Monday of which the county commissioners, facing a severe budget shortfall in coming years, have said there will have to be deep cuts in funding to outside agencies.

“We do appreciate very much the support of Ellis County, you represent and are seen as the leaders in the region … in terms of funding for mental health care,” Hill said. “Two thirds of our payroll is here in Ellis County, a third of our patients are here in Ellis County.”

Hill said another new push by High Plains is reaching out to farmers and others in agribusiness with suicide prevention efforts, given the tough ag economy, aggravated by President Trump’s trade war with China and retaliatory tariffs.

“We are very concerned about the stress the farmers, ranchers, people in the agribusiness sector are experiencing, and we are embarking on an effort for public education to make people aware that this is an issue that there is hope,” Hill said.

To make people aware of the counseling services available, Hill said High Plains is distributing pamphlets at Co-ops, county extension offices and with K-State, as well as making radio ads to air on the Kansas Ag Network.

The non-profit agency based in Hays at 208 E. Seventh St. has seen increased demand for its services during 2018, Hill told the commissioners at their meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St.

In Ellis County, specifically, the number of people seeking help jumped 13 percent in 2018 from 2017. Those 2,119 people, the highest ever from Ellis County, were about a third of the total number of people served across the 20-county area.

That amounts to nearly $3.4 million in services delivered by High Plains to Ellis County residents, he said.

Ellis County each year allocates money in its budget to High Plains Mental Health, the most of any area county sharing in the cost to fund the non-profit agency.

“When we do an analysis on return on investment, that’s about a twelve-fold return on your investment,” Hill said. “So for your roughly $280,000 in county funding, we delivered nearly $3.4 million in services to your citizens.”

High Plains, which serves people of all income levels, uses Ellis County money to subsidize services to low-income people, which is part of the agency’s mission. The county funding is combined with insurance reimbursements, Medicaid, private insurance and what individuals themselves pay.

“Fifty-one percent of individuals that we saw from Ellis County in 2018 had family incomes under $25,000 for the year,” Hill said.

While High Plains staff are in some ways concerned about the increase in demand, he said, on the other hand it may also reflect that more people now think it’s OK to seek mental health services.

The budget situation for the agency remains challenging, he said. Starting in 2006, Kansas cut $1 million in funding that underwrites the cost of care to move people with the greatest clinical need out of mental hospitals and into communities.

In the past two years the state has since restored about $877,000 of that mental health reform funding, Hill said.

“These funds from the state have strings attached, they must be used for that population only, we cannot spread it to other populations,” he said.

So while state funding has been restored, there are about 4,500 people who can be served with money only from the counties.

Ellis County Commissioner Dustin Roths said he’s glad people are getting help.

“One of the few places that I think government really needs to step in in life is in mental health care,” Roths said. “I believe that just looking at annual family income and the percentage that you serve, you can see why this type of thing is important in a rough ag economy.”

The numbers weigh on him, he said, as the county has been talking the past couple months about its own budget problem.

“It’s been something that I’ve been concerned about as we’ve talked about outside agency funding,” Roths said. “My fear is we look at outside agency funding as somehow spending that isn’t as important, for whatever reason, and I don’t believe that. I think it could be some of the best money we spend, and best return on investment that we get, so it’s going to be a tough thing to weigh in the coming months.”

Ellis County Commissioner Butch Schlyer asked if High Plains still services people in the Ellis County jail, as it did in the past.

“Yes we do,” said Hill. “Last year we provided $27,000 in services at the jail and courthouse, the highest among all of the counties. We do not charge the county for any of those services that we provide at the jail.”

Schlyer said he recalls the help from High Plains when he worked previously for the county.

“There were always inmates who weren’t taking their meds, or were taking them wrong, they had to be adjusted,” Schlyer said. “It was a constant issue. And oftentimes as I’d go up to the jail in the mornings, the jailers were waiting for a counselor to come up from High Plains Mental Health to get someone on the right path again. I know it’s a very needed service.”