Lawmakers propose changes to Behavioral Health Division

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- State lawmakers have decided to step in, in an effort to make some changes to the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. During a news conference on Monday, February 3rd, lawmakers announced this process begins with taking some control away from the Milwaukee County Board, which currently oversees the Behavioral Health Division.

The bill would oust some of the members currently on the Milwaukee County Health and Human Needs Committee. Some state leaders say it's all in an effort to fix problems they say have been going on for decades.

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) and Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) feel Milwaukee's Behavioral Health Division is fractured and something needs to be done.

"When you have greater than 30% of the individuals being seen in the emergency room, and repeatedly coming back within 60-90 days, we need to change the way that process occurs," Sen. Vukmir said.

Rep. Sanfelippo and Sen. Vukmir have proposed a bill they claim is not about designing a mental health program, but rather, revamping the board in charge.

"We want to remove the decision making process from all the outside pressures that have influenced it in the past -- political and other pressure that have prevented the real reforms from taking place," Rep. Sanfelippo said.

Rep. Sanfelippo says the bill is going to start with a 13-member board comprised of 11 voting members. Of the 11 voting members, three will be nominated or suggested by the County Board -- three by the County Executive.

The remaining five individuals on the board would be nominated by Gov. Walker but they are going to come from input from Milwaukee County.

"We hope by putting together a group of professionals who really understand mental illness -- that they are going to help us come up with a system so that the best care can be given to these individuals," Sen. Vukmir said.

Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan serves on Milwaukee County's Health and Human Needs Committee, which deals with the Behavioral Health Division. He is opposed to the proposal made Monday.

"What I see this as is an unnecessary bureaucratic adjustment," Weishan said.

Weishan says changing the players will not change the problem.

"The Milwaukee County Board is not opposed to redesigning the system. What we are opposed to is dumping people with mental health issues into the community without the appropriate housing or resources that would allow them to live safely and for their neighbors to live safely. There isn't enough resources. People have gone off their medication and have assaulted their neighbors," Weishan said.

Weishan argues the root of the problem is a lack of state funding.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sanfelippo emphasizes that should this bill become law, all delivery of services would still remain with Milwaukee County, and would be delivered by Milwaukee County.

Jonathan Safran, an attorney who represents the families of two patients who have died at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex has issued the following statement:

"I represent the families of two patients who have died at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex in 2013 and 2014, and another individual who was severely beaten by another patient in 2013. My cases and the information obtained reflect that there is an immediate health risk and threat to patients at the Complex which needs to be addressed immediately. Too many individuals have died there, and how many more need to die or be severely injured before significant changes are implemented. The opinions of psychiatrist Dr. William Knoedler, hired by Disability Rights Wisconsin, and whose report was provided to the County in June, 2013, further reflect the concerns which have yet to be fully addressed. The Milwaukee County Board has not exhibited a satisfactory response to the concerns which have been raised over and over again. Politics and political funding issues must be removed and have no place in dealing with the care of citizens needing mental health care at the Mental Health Complex. The legislation introduced by the State Senator and State Representative addresses some of the concerns which are obvious at the Complex. I only hope for a quick debate and passage of a comprehensive bill to address the needed changes."