The Ripon Forum

Volume 48, No. 1

Winter 2014 Issue

The Wisconsin Example

By on July 16, 2014 with 0 Comments

How one state is tackling the mental health crisis

by ROBIN VOS

rvA package of bills that garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in the Wisconsin State Legislature this session addresses an important issue in our state and country.

Mental health disorders affect millions of people every year, including an estimated 22 percent of adults. It can take a toll on personal relationships, families and even the economy. It is estimated that mental illness costs the United States billions in lost productivity every year.

With reportedly half of all lifetime cases of mental illness beginning by age 14, early intervention is essential. However, the stigma often associated with mental illness keeps people from seeking treatment; the median delay between the onset of a disorder and treatment is about ten years. The facts are daunting, but they illustrate the need to take action.

In Wisconsin, Republicans and Democrats agreed that our state’s system for treating those with mental illness was simply not getting the job done. Last February, I created the Speaker’s Task Force on Mental Health and charged its chair, Rep. Erik Severson (R-Osceola), and vice-chair, Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood), with finding ways to increase access to care and improve the coordination of treatment.

In Wisconsin, Republicans and Democrats agreed that our state’s system for treating those with mental illness was simply not getting the job done.

I wanted legislators to take a comprehensive look at mental health issues, which would lead to legislation to address some of the main concerns. I tasked the 11-member committee with recommending improvements in the following areas:

  • Eliminating barriers to treatment, and promoting early and voluntary intervention for juveniles and adults in need of mental health services.
  • Improving coordination of care among those who treat people with mental illness.
  • Increasing awareness and reducing the stigma that often accompanies mental health diagnoses.
  • Identifying and promoting best practices for addressing the link between mental illness and substance dependence and abuse.
  • Addressing mental illness in the prison population.

The Speaker’s Task Force on Mental Health held five public hearings around Wisconsin. Legislators heard from more than 70 experts and the public. After weeks of deliberation, the task force proposed reforms that were drafted into more than a dozen bills. One piece of legislation creates a child psychiatry access line to help connect pediatricians with psychiatrists since many counties in Wisconsin lack even a single child psychiatrist.

In order to attract doctors to underserved areas, one bill provides grants to doctors in primary care or psychiatry to get them to practice in rural areas of the state. Another bill establishes a new Treatment Alternatives and Diversions program for offenders with mental health disorders to promote treatment over incarceration and hopefully reduce recidivism rates. In addition, there’s legislation that allows for more communication between primary care physicians and mental health professionals so doctors can work together in a patient’s best interest. When it comes to emergency treatment for a loved one, a separate bill guarantees that interested parties have a right to have a judge review a three-party petition. Legislation also addresses the employment of individuals experiencing mental illness by creating five regional centers around the state that will help with placement and support.

The Speaker’s Task Force on Mental Health held five public hearings around Wisconsin … After weeks of deliberation, the task force proposed reforms that were drafted into more than a dozen bills.

Wisconsin’s two year budget also provided an increase in funding for mental health care. Nearly $30 million is allocated to help meet the needs of individuals with mental health concerns. Nearly $4 million of that is invested in Coordinated Services Teams that deal with community-based care for juveniles. More than twice that amount is going to the state’s Comprehensive Community Services that help those with severe mental illness. To help integrate services throughout all aspects of state services, the new Office of Children’s Mental Health is being created. In-home counseling for children under the Medicaid program and peer-run respite centers are both getting an increase in funding as well. Finally, approximately $12 million is being used for additional forensic units at the state’s Mendota Mental Health Institute to reduce wait times of patients and provide for timely treatment.

I am proud of the work that was done by the members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Mental Health and the Wisconsin State Legislature. The legislative package and our budget initiatives are considered one of the most comprehensive packages of mental health reforms Wisconsin has ever seen. Lawmakers not only increased awareness of mental illness, but we also addressed problems relating to the access to and coordination of care.

However, we know that more needs to be done. In the future, we will continue to look for additional avenues for improvement. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make further reforms and hopefully, provide a model for the rest of the country to follow.   RF


Speaker Robin Vos is the 75th Assembly Speaker in Wisconsin. He is currently serving his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Speaker Vos represents a portion of Racine County in southeastern Wisconsin.

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