TOPEKA — The Kansas House voted Tuesday to send legislation to Gov. Sam Brownback aimed at increasing the number of qualified mental health nurses in the state.
The Nursing Service Scholarship Program already existed, but the Legislature’s move would prioritize candidates who commit to working in the mental health field — and specifically within Kansas — after graduation.
Rep. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, was among those who supported the bill, saying it could help build the state’s flow of qualified candidates.
“They’ve all got staffing issues,” Dietrich said of facilities that provide mental health services. “And certainly part of it is low pay, but it’s also just finding a pool of people who are willing.”
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, introduced the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously last month.
According to a summary attached to the measure, the proposal attracted support from public and private universities, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, the Kansas Association of Community Mental Health Centers and a nonprofit group that offers treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.
The Kansas Board of Regents runs the existing nursing scholarship program, the goal of which is to ease shortages across the state, with a particular eye on rural areas.
The modifications that passed the Legislature concern nursing students working with sponsors who are mental health service providers or treatment facilities. Scholarship recipients would agree to work for them one year for each year of scholarship aid they receive. If the student breaks this agreement, he or she must repay the scholarship with interest.
“We have such a shortage of the people we need at Osawatomie and other places,” said Rep. Nancy Lusk, D-Overland Park. “This just needs to be done. We’ve waited a long time for it.”
The scholarships are capped at 70 percent of in-state tuition. Recipients don’t need to be Kansas residents to apply.
When the bill was introduced, the Kansas Division of the Budget offered a fiscal analysis indicating the Board of Regents has said any extra nursing scholarship awards resulting from the program would be funded within the current budget.
The House passed the bill 118 to 5. Two representatives were absent for the vote.
The five opponents were Republican representatives Francis Awerkamp, of St. Marys; Trevor Jacobs, of Fort Scott; Randy Powell, of Olathe; and Bill Sutton, of Gardner; and John Whitmer, of Wichita.
“I don’t think it should be within the government’s role to enter into picking winners and losers with regard to business development,” Powell said. “I don’t think that should be a core function of the government. I stand on that principal.”
Meanwhile, the House took final action — with a 123-0 vote — approving changes meant to strengthen oversight of the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare.
The position of KanCare inspector general, housed within the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, has been empty since 2014. The goal is to fill the position and increase its independence by moving the role to the Attorney General’s Office.
The House also passed by a 123-0 vote a bill that would realign certain penalties related to drug crimes, under which possession of marijuana-related paraphernalia currently draws a more severe punishment than possession of the actual drug.
Separately, the House voted 122-1 to create an annual review process allowing people committed to state hospitals as sexually violent offenders to petition for review and release.
Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, was the sole opponent.
Kansas is one of a few states in which a person found to be a sexually violent offender can be held indefinitely at a state hospital after finishing his or her prison term.