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Dueling Bills Aim To Create More Emergency Mental Health Beds In Western, Northern Wisconsin

Democratic, Republican Lawmakers Say Politics Has Soured What Should Be Bipartisan Effort To Address Region's Needs

hospital bed
Michael Kappel (CC-BY-NC)

A pair of dueling bills from western Wisconsin legislators are aiming to increase the number of hospital beds in the region for people experiencing mental health emergencies.

While the state lawmakers introducing the legislation share the same goal, the proposals are drawing partisan fire.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, is introducing a bill that would require the state Building Commission to award a $15 million grant to the Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS), which operates mental health services at HSHS Sacred Heart in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

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The bill stipulates that HSHS would expand psychiatric bed capacity by 22 beds between the two locations and give preference to patients held in emergency mental health detentions from 29 counties in northern and western Wisconsin.

Under chapter 51 of the Wisconsin state statute, law enforcement and authorized city or county health officials can involuntarily detain adults and minors who are believed to be mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others.

Bernier’s bill is identical to language inserted in the 2019-21 state budget, but a line-item veto by Gov. Tony Evers redirected the $15 million from the proposed “Northern Wisconsin Regional Crisis Center” to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison.

“Needless to say, I was extraordinarily disappointed in our governor who does not understand the needs of western and northern Wisconsin,” Bernier said.

She said data from the state Department of Health Services, which runs the Mendota facility, show there were 774 patients from the region in 2018 who were committed and sent to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, operated by the state DHS in the City of Oshkosh. Bernier said her office has estimated that the 29 counties in the region could have saved $2.7 million by having more mental health detention beds in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties.

She HSHS Sacred Heart has told her it can add mental health beds for less than it would cost to expand the state-run facility and law enforcement would save money by not having to transport as many patients across the state.

A separate bill being introduced by state Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, is calling for $5 million to be spent on creating “regional crisis stabilization facilities” for adults in five regions across the state established by DHS.

Schachtner said she doesn’t think a “brick and mortar” approach is the best way to address the region’s mental health needs.

She said instead of expanding capabilities in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire local hospitals could convert existing beds into specialized emergency mental health beds. Schachtner cited the Burnett Medical Center in Grantsburg as an example. She said the hospital has three beds formerly used for obstetrics that could be converted to serve emergency mental health detentions.

“And if we have empty hospital beds that aren’t being used and we have patients and clients that could use them, wouldn’t it be a more effective and efficient use of our resources to keep those people local and bring the resources to them?” asked Schachtner.

A call to the Burnett Medical Center seeking confirmation of the unused beds described by Schachtner wasn’t returned.

Current state law mandates emergency mental health facilities for juveniles must be certified by the state. Schachtner’s bill also requires DHS to establish new criteria for such facilities.

Schachtner said it’s unfortunate Republicans, including Bernier, aren’t willing to consider her proposal. She also said Bernier’s plan to add emergency mental health beds in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls would still be burdensome for people experiencing crises in her western-border district who may face a two-hour police transport to get there.

“Why are we building a system that continues to create obstacles?” Schachtner asked. “Can’t we at least look at possibly making it local so that the people who are struggling can have confidence in their local system?”

For her part, Bernier said political gamesmanship has made her proposal to expand mental health services in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls a nonstarter among Schachtner and other Democratic lawmakers.

“It is not about my district, it’s about our area of the state, and it should be a bipartisan initiative,” said Bernier. “And I am so saddened that they have made this a partisan issue probably because they have to cover for a governor who already vetoed it.”

In a memo explaining his state budget vetoes, Evers said he struck Bernier’s proposal because he objected “to this project not following the normal enumeration process that has been established by the Building Commission.”

He said directing the $15 million proposed for the “Northern Wisconsin Regional Crisis Center” to the Mendota mental health facility in Madison “will ensure that the state is able to provide appropriate mental health treatment for youth.”

The bills are currently circulating for co-sponsorship.