Lawmakers and law enforcement officials push for more mental health beds in northwest Wisconsin

Published: Sep. 26, 2019 at 5:59 PM CDT
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Local law enforcement officials and lawmakers are working on legislation to expand mental health care in northwest Wisconsin.

Assembly Bill 443 would require the state Building Commission to award a $15,000,000 grant to HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospitals to add about 22 beds for mental health patients.

Under the bill, preference for the beds would be given to people under emergency detention and who are from 29 counties in northwest Wisconsin.

A similar proposal was made in June, but after being vetoed by Governor Evers, those involved are taking a new approach.

On Thursday, Altoona Police Chief Kelly Bakken testified in support of the bill in front of the Assembly State Affairs Committee in Madison.

“We need additional mental health beds and we need more regionalized areas with these mental health beds so we can better treat these patients,” Bakken says.

The bill states that having these new beds would greatly benefit Wisconsinites by making mental health treatment more accessible.

“Having a mental health facility closer that allows us to accommodate patients from our regions will allow those mental health patients to more quickly get that treatment,” Bakken says. “It’s not going to be tying up our officers as long and it will allow them to be by their support system.”

Bakken says oftentimes patients have to be transported to Winnebago, a state run mental health facility in Oshkosh, WI. This situation makes transporting a patient in a mental health crisis a six hour roundtrip drive for officers. Since Winnebago is not a hospital, officers also have to get medical clearance for patients in emergency detention, which can tack on hours to the process.

“For communities that have small departments, if they are sending their officers on a mental health transport those communities are left unprotected and now don’t have any staff working or if they do have staff working they are now called in for over time,” Bakken says.

Bakken says having more beds would put less strain on officers and mean for less time outside the communities they serve. She says a long drive to get treatment can also add stress for the person in a mental health crisis.

“When law enforcement are transporting people we are putting them in shackles, we are putting them in handcuffs, we are putting them in the back seat of our caged squad cars which is counterproductive to their mental health state in the first place,” Bakken says. “Then we are driving them hours upon hours away from their support systems, families, communities and things they need during these mental health crises.”

Bakken says while it would be ideal not to restrain people while they are in a mental health crisis, it is often necessary for both the officers and the individual. Spending less time in the transport would be a step closer to a more humanitarian approach to emergency detentions.

Sommer Miller, Vice President of Strategy at HSHS Sacred Heart & St Joseph’s Hospitals agrees that having more beds at the hospitals will benefit the community.

“This isn’t going to be the end all fix that we need but it is a step in the right direction,” Miller says. “We do community need assessments every three years and this is always at the top. Mental health is always at the top, this is a need our community has.”

With the bill, the adolescent mental health unit will move to HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls and the adult mental health unit will be at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire. The new layout will also allow the hospitals to maximize the use of their beds. Right now, there could be an open bed in a dual layout room, but if it is occupied by an adult, then they cannot admit an adolescent.

“If they have other issues presenting throughout their stay that would require medical attention for another reason they don’t have to be transferred we can take care of that here as well,” Miller says. “We have access to the full spectrum of care here because we are a full service hospital but because we are closer their support systems that are needed for long term success they can get here easier be a part of that recovery.”

The bill was introduced on September 13 by Representatives James, Summerfield, Tittl, Dittrich, Edming, Kulp, Kurtz, Magnafici, Oldenburg, Petryk, Pronschinske, Quinn, Rohrkaste, Skowronski, Spiros, Tusler and VanderMeer. It is being cosponsored by Senators Bernier, Tiffany, Schachtner, Smith, Stroebel, Testin and Wanggaard.

Before becoming law, the bill will have to be approved by both the House and the Senate, then approved by Governor Evers.