Mental health bills clear legislative hurdle

  • Article by: SCOTT BAUER
  • Associated Press
  • January 8, 2014 - 12:35 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Seven bipartisan proposals that grew out of concerns over recent mass shootings as well as the effectiveness of Wisconsin's overall mental health system passed the Legislature's budget committee on Wednesday.

The bills found broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, clearing the Assembly unanimously last year. They could come up for a vote in the Senate as early as Tuesday.

"None of these are silver bullets, but at least they put us on a better road," said committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. "I think it is significant, we've got a long way to go, but we should recognize we're headed in the right direction."

Republicans, and Gov. Scott Walker, called for improving mental health services in the state in reaction to the 2012 mass shootings at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek and Brookfield spa. Numerous stories about individuals who encountered problems with obtaining mental health services in the state have also motivated lawmakers to act.

In one high profile case, the parents of Jaren Kuester, who is accused of killing three people in Lafayette County last year, said he was delusional and potentially dangerous but he didn't meet state criteria to allow the county to hold him.

A bill that would create a pilot program in Milwaukee County that would give mental health professionals as well as police officers the authority to send people into emergency detentions has been introduced but remains in an Assembly committee.

That bill, as well as the seven passed by the Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday, grew out of a mental health task force created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. That group was chaired by Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, an emergency room doctor with Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, a psychiatric care nurse, serving as vice-chair.

Their proposals gained bipartisan support, even though proposals from some Democrats for tougher gun laws have gone nowhere.

The bills passed Wednesday, which are slated to cost nearly $5 million over the next two years, would:

— Provide $1.5 million in tax-deductible grants to encourage psychiatrists and primary care physicians to practice in underserved areas. The money would go to up to 12 new physicians and up to 12 new psychiatrists a year.

— Spend $1 million over two years to create a hotline that psychiatrists treating children and teenagers with mental health issues could use for consultation. Supporters say this is important because of the lack of child psychologists in rural areas.

— Create a $970,000 grant program to help find jobs for people with serious mental illnesses.

— Make $750,000 available in grants to counties over the next two years for programs that provide alternatives to prosecution or incarceration for people with mental illness.

— Provide $250,000 over two years to train correctional and law enforcement officials about how to effectively respond to citizens experiencing a behavioral crisis.

— Spend $250,000 over the next two years to pay for peer-run respite centers for people with mental health or substance abuse issues. The goal is to reduce dependence on the mental health system by having services provided by people who have completed recovery programs already.

— Provide $250,000 over the next two years to counties to create teams to serve people having mental health crises. Fifty-seven counties currently have mobile crisis teams established.

Walker's budget last year, approved by the Legislature, added nearly $29 million to increase services for young people and adults with mental health problems. That included more than $10 million to expand community-based programs for adults and children with mental illness and $12.5 million for additional forensic units at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.

Five of the bills passed by the budget committee, as well as eight others designed to improve mental health services, were scheduled for a public hearing Thursday in the Senate Health Committee.

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