Assembly passes 13 mental health reform bills - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Assembly passes 13 mental health reform bills

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Access to mental health care is expected to improve with a package of bills recommended by the Task Force on Mental Health.

The state Assembly approved 13 bi-partisan, mental health bills on Tuesday that expand resources and provide better access to care in Wisconsin. The anticipated cost of the package is about $5 million.

"Some have called it the most comprehensive reform of the mental health care system in generations," says Republican Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos. 

The task force has been working with doctors and advocates for several years to make these changes that many say are long overdue.

"The way our mental health system has been run is, we ignore and then it's the equivalent of intensive care, we do nothing in between," says Democratic Rep. Sandy Pasch. "So many of these bills are offering an in between."

Doctors say the bills are very positive.

Psychiatrist Jerry Halverson, who's a member of the Wisconsin Medical Society and directs adult services at Rogers Memorial Hospital, approves of a bill that allows psychiatrists to share a patient's information with a primary care physician.

"It'll allow easier communication between psychiatrists and primary care doctors," Halverson says. "I think that will allow for safer and better care for the patients that we share."

The bill makes Wisconsin law level with federal HIPPA privacy policies, which are a bit looser than the state's policies. The change has concerned some patients though, who want to be the ones to determine what information to disclose to their doctors.

One bill provides doctors an incentive to practice in rural areas, to spread resources across the state. Often, doctors are centralized in bigger cities and patients have to travel farther for treatment.

Shel Gross, with the advocacy group Mental Health America of Wisconsin, also chairs Gov. Scott Walker's Wisconsin Council on Mental Health. He says the bills address a lot of the issues he's raised about mental health access.

"They're building on a lot of current best practices around community-based mental health treatment," Gross says. "It recognizes that we have very poor access to child's mental health services, especially psychiatry services in a lot of parts of Wisconsin."

A bill would create a child psychiatry access line, funding a group of on-call consultants who are available to answer pediatricians' questions on how to care for young patients coping with mental health issues.

Gross says a bill to train law enforcement officers to better work with people with mental health issues should lead to safer interactions with offenders.

The bills now move on to the Senate for a vote.

Gross and Halverson both believe the package is a good first step but hope for continued focus on improving the mental health care system in our state.

Halverson says he'd like to see a change to commitment laws in Wisconsin, to help families get loved ones treatment, even if the patient declines help.

Gross says more money needs to be allocated to Wisconsin's counties to provide more resources to help deliver services to patients.
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