OSAWATOMIE – The word “privatization” was the elephant in the room during Thursday’s Osawatomie State Hospital (OSH) town hall meeting at Memorial Hall.

Residents met with representatives from Correct Care Recovery Solutions, Secretary Tim Keck of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) and area legislators hoping to learn more about what a transition from a state-operated facility to a privately-operated facility would entail.

And it wasn’t just residents who had questions. Rep. Jene Vickrey questioned Keck a few times, clarifying some of his concerns about the request for proposal (RFP) for privatization as well as his displeasure that KDADS is drafting a bill, regarding the RFP, to be introduced this late into the legislative session.

Keck said while they are still only working on the first draft of the bill, details will remain undisclosed for now because he’s afraid it will affect negotiations with Correct Care.

The hospital cannot be privatized without prior approval of the legislators.

While House Rep. Kevin Jones was unable to attend the meeting Thursday, the other legislators present, including Vickrey, Sen. Caryn Tyson and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, presented a unified front, saying that they have been fighting for the community and for the state hospital from the beginning.

Despite that, several residents had concerns, and they were quick to point out the issues that could have a large impact on their livelihoods.

Will property taxes increase with the construction of a new building? What will the programs and care be like if the operations at OSH are privatized? Will benefits provided by the state remain the same under privatization, and if not, will they be comparable? Will staffing be increased to compete with the addition of new beds and to help with poor nurse-to-patient ratios?

These questions and more were laid at the representatives’ and legislators’ feet.

Resident Donna Darner, a former employee of OSH, grilled the Correct Care representatives about the level of care and the quality of programs they planned to offer should privatization become a reality under their company.

One of her main concerns was patient outings. She said many years ago, OSH provided something similar to field trips to patients, allowing them to leave the grounds with supervision and enjoy short trips to various places in the area. That program was cut, along with many others, which also were brought up alongside many past grievances by other residents later in the meeting.

Darner asked Correct Care representatives if their company would be bringing back patient field trips. The answer she received was “yes,” but only for qualified patients and only after a series of strict evaluations.

Osawatomie Police Chief Dave Ellis chose to comment on an issue that has caused many police departments and sheriff’s offices in the area concern.

He said something needs to be done about the waiting list and lack of beds because law enforcement is not equipped to care for patients in their custody who need to be treated at mental health facilities.

Many current employees of OSH asked about the transition between benefits and insurance, asking if those benefits offered by the state would remain the same under privatization by Correct Care.

Correct Care’s vice president Jeremy Barr said that benefits will likely be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and while he couldn’t promise that employees would retain benefits similar to those offered by the state, he did say that Correct Care benefits are contribution-driven and extremely competitive.

Privatization was put on the table as a solution after a series of problems faced by the state hospital, the first and main of which was its decertification.

The hospital has been plagued in recent years by a lack of staffing and training as well as aging facilities. In addition, in October 2015, a male patient was accused of raping one of the hospital’s female employees.

Those issues played a big part in OSH’s decertification in January 2016, which resulted in a loss of up to $1 million per month in federal funds.

KDADS sought recertification in February 2016, going through a lengthy process of remodeling, renovations and safety upgrades to OSH facilities, primarily at Adair.

Once the hospital received its recertification, KDADS placed an RFP for privatization at the end of 2016, which was answered by Correct Care. One other bid was made by another company; however, that bid was placed after the deadline and thus disqualified.

Keck says funding is a big reason why KDADS is looking at privatization. He believes the state currently doesn’t have the means to sustain OSH long-term while retaining quality care for its patients and employees.

If privatized, the operations would go to Correct Care with oversight remaining with the state.

Several buildings would eventually be torn down, with the administration building being one of the first to go. It would be replaced with a new hospital. The proposed hospital would cost between $100 and $170 million to construct. The state would fund the construction of the facility, and Correct Care would operate the new hospital, which will likely take two or three years to build should the privatization become a reality.

While she has not been an advocate of privatization in the past, Sen. Tyson mentioned at Thursday’s town hall meeting that she is seriously considering it as an option now because, she said, it may be the only way to keep the state hospital in Miami County.

As for city officials, City Manager Don Cawby said the main concern is to keep OSH, one of the city’s main revenue streams, right where it is, adding that the city is prepared to do its part in the process.

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