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AG Kaul remains hopeful about mental health beds

Leader-Telegram - 2/26/2020

Feb. 26--Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul remains hopeful legislators can work in a bipartisan fashion to bring more mental health beds to the Chippewa Valley and other parts of the state.

"If we can work to make our system more effective at providing services to people who are struggling with mental health issues, who are struggling with substance use disorder, that's going to make a difference in the lives of a lot of Wisconsinites, but it's also going to make our communities safer," Kaul said Tuesday afternoon at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire.

Regional legislators thought they had taken a significant step last summer toward addressing a key problem -- availability of hospital beds in the region for people experiencing mental health emergencies -- when a $15 million grant to Hospital Sisters Health System was included in the 2019-21 state budget to expand psychiatric bed capacity by 22 beds between HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital and HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls to treat patients from northern and western Wisconsin.

The measure was approved by both the Assembly and Senate but was later vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who redirected that $15 million to expand psychiatric services at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center near Madison.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers later introduced competing bills to address the issue in different ways. Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, introduced the $15 million budget provision as a stand-alone bill, while Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, called for $5 million to be spent on creating regional crisis stabilization facilities for adults in five regions across the state. The Legislature has yet to pass either measure.

Kaul acknowledged that Wisconsin only has one state facility, Winnebago Mental Health Institute near Oshkosh, that takes patients in all circumstances suffering a mental health crisis. That often means law enforcement officers from around the state must travel long distances to transport patients to Winnebago.

While health care providers have some beds available to treat people in emergency detention who are deemed a danger to themselves or others, "the number of beds that we have around the state is insufficient for the challenge that we're facing," Kaul said.

"This is an issue that we need to address and I think there's a recognition among people on both sides of the aisle that we need to come together and identify solutions," he said.

Kaul said he is optimistic concrete solutions will emerge in the next legislative session.

Sandy Anderson, acting president and CEO of Sacred Heart, said hospital officials appreciated the opportunity to express their concerns to the attorney general. Anderson said staff detailed the need for more mental health beds and also told Kaul they hope legislators will take action to create more training programs to address the shortage of mental health providers interested in working in small communities.

The attorney general also commented on his announcement earlier Tuesday that Wisconsin has joined a bipartisan, 39-state investigation of e-cigarette maker JUUL Labs. The coalition is investigating JUUL's marketing and sales practices, including targeting of youth; claims regarding nicotine content; and statements regarding safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device.

"There has been an alarming increase in e-cigarette use, particularly among young people, here in Wisconsin and across the country. JUUL has been the driving force in the increase," Kaul said.

While traditional cigarette use has plummeted among youth, vaping is skyrocketing. The Youth Tobacco Survey found that the share of state high school students smoking cigarettes dropped from 10.7% to 4.7% between 2014 and 2018, but the percentage of those students vaping rose from 7.9 to 20.1 during the same period, according to the state Department of Justice.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared vaping unsafe for children, teens and young adults.


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