Like many Kansans, Rick Cagan spent much of last weekend reading and listening to news reports about the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cagan had a professional reason for learning what he could about the tragedy. He runs the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas Chapter office in Topeka.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
According to initial news reports, the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a personality disorder or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. However, there is no indication that he had the kind of severe mental illness suffered by others responsible for mass shootings.
Jared Loughner, the man convicted of shooting former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, for instance, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes disordered thinking and delusions.
And James Holmes, the man accused of shooting 12 people to death and wounding 58 others last summer at a movie theater in a Denver sought mental health treatment before the attack, according to multiple news reports.
Mass shootings nearly always rekindle debates about gun control and the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system. Commenting on the later, Cagan said many Kansans with mental illness are not getting the early treatment they need to avoid crises.
“More than 60 percent of the adults who have a serious mental illness are untreated,” he said, noting that in Kansas half the admissions to the state hospitals for the mentally ill involve people who’ve had no previous contact with their community’s mental health center.
In Kansas, state-hospital admissions are reserved for adults who are seriously mentally ill and have been deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“NAMI is always reluctant to jump in with some sort of comment when these kinds of incidents occur because there’s so much that we don’t know,” Cagan said, referring to the shootings. “But, still, blaming the individual only goes so far. At some point, we have to look at the overall well-being of our mental health system.”
Budget cuts in the mental health system
Kansas’ system, he said, hasn’t fared well in recent years.
“I don’t like saying this,” Cagan said, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”
In Pittsburg, the community health center so desperately needed more space that last year staff converted closets and a bathroom into offices.
But next year the number of patients the center sees is expected to grow 24 percent, said Krista Postai, chief executive of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
"And I have no place to put them," she said. "This building is totally and completely at capacity."
That should soon change.
By December 2014, using a $4.7 million federal grant, the center will nearly triple its space from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet.
The grant was announced today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is part of more than $21.6 million awarded to five Kansas community health centers.
About 40,000 new patients will gain access to care thanks to the construction and renovation projects funded by the grants, according to HHS.
The funding stems from the Affordable Care Act, which authorized $9.5 billion to expand health services over five years and $1.5 billion for construction and renovation at community health centers.
“For many Americans, community health centers are the major source of care that ranges from prevention to treatment of chronic diseases," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a prepared statement. "This investment will expand our ability to provide high-quality care to millions of people while supporting good paying jobs in communities across the country.”
The grant amounts for the other Kansas health centers were:
■ $2.7 million for the Salina Family Healthcare Center in Salina.
■ $4.6 million for Hunter Health Clinic in Wichita.
■ $4.5 million for Konza Prairie Community Health Center in Junction City.
■ $5 million for PrairieStar Health Center in Hutchinson.
The grant funds were disbursed directly to the health centers, which are private, nonprofit organizations.
In Pittsburg, the new construction is set to begin in July and finish by December 2014, Postai said.
The center will then be able to expand most existing services as well as add optometry, physical therapy and speech therapy services. An estimated 8,200 additional patients will be able to access the center.
Plans are to add 42 positions at an average salary of $45,700 as a result of the expansion, center officials said.
The waiting room has been at capacity for years with more demand on it after one of the area's biggest employers was shuttered at the end of 2008. The wheel maker Superior closed as the auto industry crashed and the number of people near Pittsburg without insurance shot up from 12 percent in 2009 to nearly 18 percent in 2010.
"From the time we open, it is wall-to-wall people. We need space," Postai said. "You can only be open so many hours and you can only schedule so creatively. And our efficiency has been impacted by our lack of space."