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Our Views: On mental health, state taking steps in right direction

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November 18, 2013

Ask police officers, social services workers and many families, and you'll hear how more could be done to help those suffering from severe mental illnesses.

Fortunately, Wisconsin is heading in the right direction after the Assembly passed 13 reforms last week. Say what you will about other issues the Assembly took up in a session that ended with late-night antics amid fatigue and fraying nerves, but it was good to see bipartisan support for these mental health bills.

Yet the legislation can do no good until the Senate approves and sends it to Gov. Scott Walker. The Senate should take up these reforms pronto when it reconvenes in January.

The bills evolved out of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' legislative task force on mental health.

“I'm glad we came together to try to make a difference in the lives of Wisconsin residents,” said Vos, R-Rochester. “By working with mental health experts and citizens whose families have been impacted by mental illness, we have found ways to help our friends and neighbors. These bills increase access to care, provide for better coordination of care and, hopefully, reduce the stigma often associated with mental illness.”

At the committee's core were professionals with fingers on the pulse of the problems. Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, an emergency room doctor, chaired the committee. Vice chairwoman was Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, a psychiatric care nurse.

The state would invest about $4 million over two years. Among other things, the measures would:

-- Provide law enforcement and correctional officers with $250,000 in grants every two years for crisis intervention teams.

-- Create a child psychiatry consultation program that would include a hotline doctors could use to help treat children.

-- Ease sharing of patient records between insurers and care providers.

-- Provide $1.5 million in grants for up to 12 new doctors and 12 new psychiatrists to practice in underserved areas.

-- Provide $250,000 in grants for peer-run respite centers with a goal of reducing hospitalizations.

-- Give Milwaukee County officials more than 24 hours in some cases to determine whether people should be detained.

The reforms come on the heels of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series on mental health care. The series, which took months to prepare, found prominent failings in Milwaukee County.

The legislation also comes months after Waukesha's Jaren Kuester stood accused of bludgeoning three people in southwestern Wisconsin. Kuester's parents had pleaded with mental health officials to detain their son because he was delusional and they feared he might hurt someone. The officials declined because he didn't meet detention criteria.

Vos is right to suggest the Assembly bills are the most comprehensive mental health reform package the state has ever assembled. He's right, too, in reasoning they should only be the start of long-term discussions about how best to address mental health care.



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