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Pilot program would help Wisconsin police connect people in crisis to virtual mental health experts

State budget includes $2M for a telemedicine crisis response program

The sun shines through leaves in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Oct. 4, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

State senators heard testimony this week on a proposal that seeks to help police officers connect people in crisis with mental health professionals.

Wisconsin’s current budget includes $2 million for a telemedicine crisis response pilot program. It would offer grants to local law enforcement agencies to cover the costs of virtual behavioral health expertise and equipment like smartphones and tablets.

During a public hearing Tuesday, Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said the goal is reducing the need for arrests or for having someone committed involuntarily to a mental health facility.

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“Communities across our state are transforming the way they respond to mental health 911 calls,” said James, who formerly worked as a police officer. “Instead of the traditional cuff n’ stuff method where officers immediately handcuffed those in distress and placed them in the back of a squad car, more emphasis has been placed on defusing nonviolent behavioral health emergencies without the need for physical restraint.”

Nevada and South Dakota have implemented similar programs, in which sheriff’s departments are outfitted with tablets, so officers get 24/7 access to mental health expertise. A behavioral health professional can video-chat directly with the person in crisis and then coordinate with police to recommend a follow-up plan, such as referral to a local mental health provider.

Both South Dakota and Nevada contracted with Avel eCare to help run their programs. Avel eCare, a telehealth services provider, submitted testimony in favor of Wisconsin’s legislation.

A previous version of Wisconsin’s bill would have required Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services to contract with a private entity which would have provided equipment, training and other services to the local governments that participate in the program.

Lawmakers amended the proposal at DHS’ request, so that the state health department would instead award grants to county crisis agencies. Those counties would then contract with local law enforcement agencies, who would have more flexibility in developing their own virtual mental health care programs.

“We are allowing the counties to tell us how they would like to use these funds to administer this program rather than us telling them how they’re going to do it,” DHS Legislative Director H.J. Waukau said during a public hearing.

The bill would require local agencies to come up with matching funds to cover at least 25 percent of the costs of running their telehealth programs.

Wisconsin’s Assembly approved a version of the legislation earlier this month. Assuming the proposal clears the state Senate and is signed into law, it would require officials to compile data by May 2025 to evaluate the pilot’s effectiveness.

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