State May Take Over Wisconsin County's Mental Health Care

February 3, 2014

After decades of missed opportunities and ignored pleas to build a better system, legislation will be introduced Monday to strip the Milwaukee County Board of its oversight of mental health care.

The measure would instead place control of the county's fractured mental health system in the hands of a board appointed by the governor and made up primarily of medical professionals. The change effectively aligns the county with the rest of the state where professionals trump politicians.

"Our broken system has been mired in politics for too long," said state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) who will introduce the bill with state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) at a news conference Monday morning in Wauwatosa.

The key function of the bill is to take politics out of the process and all other outside influences "so the decisions that are made are rooted solely in what is best for consumers," Sanfelippo said.

The move comes after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found the county has the most lopsided mental health system in the country, with money poured into institutional care instead of more effective community programs.

The investigation found patients cycling through the emergency room at an alarming rate. More than 30% of the patients seen at the facility return within 90 days. One woman had been seen 196 times in six years, an average of once every 11 days. A man was brought into the emergency room by police 10 times in a month.

The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, which dropped its accreditation status 10 years ago to save money, has been cited by state inspectors 182 times since for violating the safety of its patients, records recently obtained by the Journal Sentinel show.

An independent doctor hired by Disability Rights Wisconsin, the state's designated patient advocacy organization, reviewed the medical records of six patients who died at the facility in 2012 and concluded that basic medical care was so poor, the complex should be closed until improvements could be made. The report, completed in June, was made public last month when the Journal Sentinel obtained a copy.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, has signaled his support for a major overhaul of the county's mental health system. Sanfelippo said he expected the governor to give the new plan his full support.

It is also backed by the current county executive, Chris Abele, a Democrat.