A bill before the Kansas Legislature would offer more services for youths in need of emergency psychiatric care. Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican, has sponsored a bill to add acute care psychiatric beds in Hays, Garden City or surrounding communities.

The bill would bolster a juvenile mental health system in need of support in Kansas, and help ensure resources are available to young people at risk no matter where they live.

In Kansas, KDADS oversees youth behavioral health services to ensure young people who are suicidal or have made threats to harm others can receive the support they need.

Youths at particularly high risk may need immediate inpatient care, which requires acute care psychiatric beds. KVC, the KDADS contractor managing the services, closed the acute beds in Hays last November, citing federal regulations limiting the ability to offer acute beds alongside those for longer-term residential stays.

The closure left western Kansas with no acute care psychiatric beds. The closest beds are in Wichita, and local service providers report families must travel to Kansas City for services.

The limited availability of acute beds is a problem for the children in need of them. The sheer distance likely limits the ability of families to get their children to services and almost certainly limits their ability to fully participate in their child’s treatment.

The lack of these beds is also part of a larger problem of inadequate treatment options for youth with severe mental health issues.

Kansas has long experienced shrinking numbers of psychiatric residential treatment facilities and limits on the amount of time youths are able to stay in such facilities. Shrinking Medicaid reimbursements have made it difficult for the providers to stay open.

Foster care placements are also difficult for many children with mental health issues. The challenges of placing children with mental health conditions was one of the primary reasons foster children ended up sleeping in contractor offices, an unacceptable practice that was the tragic end-result of cuts to the safety net for children.

Children in need of emergency psychiatric care are among the most vulnerable in our state. Providing the best possible treatment for them, close to their families and support networks, is a laudable goal.

Any work to strengthen our state’s struggling youth mental health network is long overdue.