Rural Kansas physicians and health officials outlined Monday for a House committee devoted to rural issues the suffering of families struggling with mental illness and growing interest in Medicaid expansion to improve access to treatment.

Nathan Fawson, executive director of Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, said communities he represents are traumatized by mental illness and are supportive of finding new ways to meet rising demand for care. He said suicide rates have been increasing in Kansas and funding for behavioral health services has been shrinking.

“Our pain is deep,” he said. “Our need is high and access to treatment is compromised due to funding constraints. The pain of losing a loved one is compounded by the pain of losing local health care organizations that have closed their doors or discontinued treatment programs due to funding challenges."

Members of the House Rural Revitalization Committee were told health care facilities outside major population centers are challenged because they serve patients with outdated facilities and equipment, continue to have difficulty convincing physicians to work in rural areas of the state and accept the financial burden of caring for uninsured people.

Gov. Laura Kelly recommended the Legislature expand Medicaid eligibility for about 150,000 people under the Affordable Care Act.

Jeremy Presley, physician and president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, said hospitals are top employers in rural counties and form the backbone of rural economies. He said hospitals are expected to achieve professional standards, but his Dodge City medical office cannot afford some pieces of sophisticated equipment.

“Looking at support of those hospitals in search of Medicaid expansion is critical,” Presley said. “Although it may seem like a few dollars, those few dollars are what help pay for a CT scan machine, and help pay for proprietors on the weekend to give a doc a weekend away and a little time off.”

Robert Moser, executive director of Kansas Clinical Improvement Collaborative, is a proponent of innovative state programs assisting rural communities in recruiting physicians.

However, he said the state programs — such as the Kansas Bridging Program — lack funds to reach “true primary care residencies.”

“We need to engage federal programs to re-examine old models that were put in place over 30 years ago,” said Moser, a former secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.