Mental Health Advocate Urges Caution on Changes to County Complex Oversight

Feb 17, 2014

Two bills aimed at reorganizing services at the Milwaukee County Mental Health complex are being considered by state legislators.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Lawmakers in Madison continue to push for passage of two bills that would make reforms to Milwaukee County’s embattled Mental Health Complex, even while some in the mental health community question the plans.

One bill would shift oversight from the County Board of Supervisors to a 13-member volunteer board appointed by the Governor. Another proposed bill would cut the number of people brought to the Milwaukee County center by police.

But Barbara Beckert of the Milwaukee office of the group Disability Rights Wisconsin, which works on behalf of people with mental illness, says more time is needed to consider such changes.

While her organization supports "improved governance and oversight" and the "intent of the proposal" to create an oversight volunteer board, she says oversight changes should be done carefully. The right people with the right kind of expertise, diversity and life experience would be needed to appointed, and politics would have to get out of the way, she says.

The group recently published a statement regarding the oversight committee bill:

While we value the intent of this proposal and are very open to considering other oversight models, any change will require significant advocate, legal and structural review to protect people receiving county mental health services, ensure government agencies do not abdicate their legal and fiduciary responsibilities, and that all regulatory requirements are considered and met. In addition, we believe it could be beneficial to evaluate other oversight models that have been used in urban areas similar to Milwaukee, to identify what has worked well and could be adapted for Milwaukee, possibly through a Legislative Council Study Committee.

Beckert says she is concerned about funding for county health services.

"Most agree that the county has an over reliance on institutional and crisis care and is not spending enough on community care, so if that's capped we have a problem with that," she says.

The problem is exacerbated by the demands put on the publicly-funded Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. As "the second busiest psychiatric emergency room in the country," Beckert says also boasts an acute care hospital, a nursing home, and a facility for people with developmental disabilities.

But because of the county's large system of services, Beckert says many local private hospitals are not providing mental health care. Just this past year, one private hospital decided to close all of its psychiatric beds in Milwaukee County.

"That was particularly disturbing, because that was not a stand-alone psychiatric facility, it was a medical facility, and really the current public policy perspective is that is where the best care is delivered, because people don't only have a mental health need, they have a medical need as well," she says.

The Milwaukee County mental health system has been roundly criticized in the wake of deaths of a number of people being treated there. But Beckert says there have been some positive changes in the last year: new mental health initiatives have moved forward in both the state budget and through the Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign Task Force.

Gov. Walker also signed several other bills elated to mental health care into law recently, after receiving nearly unanimous support in the state legislature.