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St. Croix County calls on lawmakers for mental health crisis issue

St. Croix County is turning to lawmakers for help in solving a widening problem that officials say is draining local coffers and hamstringing law enforcement departments tasked with handling mental health crises.

Because fewer beds are available in western Wisconsin hospitals, police and St. Croix County Sheriff's Office deputies who transport people for emergency mental health detentions often trek from St. Croix County to a secure mental hospital in Winnebago County.

County health officials say the ordeal is often exacerbated for those in crisis by making the trip handcuffed in the backseat of a squad car to a place they will be separated from family and friends.

The round trip takes about nine hours and requires two officers to perform the escort each time. Records show the trips cost departments in St. Croix County about $100,000 in 2017. That number balloons to $326,872 when longer-term mental health commitment-related costs are factored in.

According to county records, more than one-third of the 132 emergency detentions performed in 2017 required transporting people to those state institutions.

St. Croix County Board members in November approved a resolution calling on legislators to fund secure access to regional emergency detention in a hospital setting. The resolution was forwarded to lawmakers, Gov. Tony Evers, the Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary.

St. Croix County Health and Human Services Director Fred Johnson said regional beds are preferable for many reasons, not the least of which is so those in crisis are not "isolated from their home, their community and family and friends."

Sen. Patty Schachtner said legislation will be necessary to tackle the problem, but stressed there's no magic bullet to contain the growing problem of servicing western Wisconsinites experiencing mental health crisis.

"To fix the system, it really means that we have to have a lot of investment," the Somerset Democrat said Monday, Jan. 28. "That costs money."

The total cost for transporting people to Winnebago in 2017 from western Wisconsin counties was $4.1 million, according to St. Croix County data.

Schachtner, who played a significant role in recent mental-health awareness campaigns in St. Croix County, downplayed the likelihood that a standalone facility would be a possibility in western Wisconsin.

"Highly unlikely," she said, citing costs.

Instead, Schachtner said lawmakers must find a blended solution that includes hospital reimbursement rates, equity in service and patient capacity.

Schachtner said the problem is no secret to those who experience it directly — law enforcement, hospital staff, social workers, among others. The key to building support at the Legislature, however, won't fall along party lines, Schachtner said.

Rather, she said it will mean calling on lawmakers from outside western Wisconsin to understand that "it looks different in our part of the state."

The number of emergency detentions in western Wisconsin has decreased since 2014, though Johnson noted how that time period coincided with an uptick in those calls being handled through a mobile crisis response — along with law enforcement crisis-intervention training and tele-health pilot project. In mobile crisis situations, people receive services through Northwest Connections, a program that provides emergency mental health services around Wisconsin.

But in spite of fewer calls demanding emergency detention, those that do require it are going to state mental health hospitals in Winnebago County on an increasing basis. Since 2013, the number of emergency detentions taken from western Wisconsin to Winnebago has increased 284 percent, according to county data.

Johnson said that while he hopes lawmakers hear the call for more beds, he stressed that existing resources around western Wisconsin remain equally vital.

"What's really key is developing resources locally for consumer" of mental health resources, he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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