Wisconsinites who need mental health services will have new options available for virtual appointments under a new grant program announced Tuesday.
Speaking at a press event at Appleton's Partnership Community Health Center, Gov. Tony Evers announced a new $5 million federal grant program that will expand telehealth options.
Half of the funding will go into five one-year, $500,000 grants for hospitals to expand and enhance their mental health services for children. The other half will fund grants to create what Evers called "neighborhood telehealth access points."
"They could be at food pantries, they could be at homeless shelters; they could be at libraries (or) in long-term care facilities, community centers and schools," Evers said.
Both initiatives are aimed at expanding access to mental health services, something Evers has said is a goal for the state.
More than many other medical services, mental health appointments done through a video chat can work well for patients and providers. They became the norm in the early months of the pandemic, and changes to the law made at that time to accommodate telehealth services have largely stayed in place. But health care policy experts have warned of barriers to accessing telehealth services for some patients, including those whose digital literacy is low or those who have bad or unreliable internet service at home.
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Offering access through local nonprofits, community centers and other places that are already providing services to people in need could help lower those barriers.
Wisconsin's expansion of youth mental health services began under Republican Gov. Scott Walker and has continued under Evers, a Democrat. Last month, Evers and state Department of Public Instruction head Jill Underly announced the Get Kids Ahead Initiative, which will provide all public and independent charter schools with new grant funding for a range of mental health services. At Tuesday's event, Evers said the new grants to hospitals will be "married" to that initiative.
The grants announced Tuesday are funded by the federal American Rescue Plan passed last March. Applications are due Friday, May 6.
Evers said telehealth services also work to address a serious shortage of mental health providers throughout the state.
"Child psychiatrists are at a premium in this state," he said. "Psychiatrists in general are at a premium in this state. ... And so if we want to serve the people in the state of Wisconsin that have mental and behavioral health issues, we're going to have to use telehealth."