HUDSON — There is no dispute that transporting emergency detention patients from western Wisconsin to the Oshkosh area is fraught with obstacles.
The patients, undergoing mental crises while deemed a threat to themselves or others, make the four-plus hour trip handcuffed in the backseat of a law enforcement squad.
Meanwhile, jurisdictions are forced to accommodate for the eight-hour absence of two cops tasked with transporting the patient.
With fewer available beds in the area for emergency detention patients, such trips have become common in St. Croix County and throughout northwestern Wisconsin. The state’s secure facility, Winnebago Mental Health Institute, saw 284% more visits from western Wisconsin between 2013 and 2017, according to a report.
That same report shows numbers are on the rise. The total cost for transporting people to Winnebago in 2013 from western Wisconsin counties was $1 million. That figure grew to $4.1 million by 2017, according to the Western Region Counties Emergency Detention and Regional Bed Need study.
“Everyone agrees” it’s a problem, Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said.
Legislators, law enforcement officials and others from county government agencies met Friday, Aug. 16, in Chippewa Falls, to discuss the issue. One attendee, St. Croix County Health and Human Services Director Fred Johnson, called it “productive.”
“I’m optimistic that there continues to be dialog on this important issue,” he said.
Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, also attended. She said that while the meeting aired different views, there were “some points that were very contentious.”
That likely stemmed from recent history surrounding the issue.
Legislation, veto … override?
Solutions to the emergency detention issue have bounced around Madison like a pinball.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this spring proposed legislation that would have provided $2.5 million for grants to fund regional crisis facilities. That legislation was stricken by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee.
However, the budget-writing committee offered its own bill — one that would have funded a single “Northern Wisconsin Regional Crisis Center.” The budget bill allowed for the Building Commission to borrow up to $15 million for the project.
Evers partially vetoed that legislation, arguing the request was outside the normal process for Building Commission projects. However, the governor directed the $15 million to be steered toward expansion of the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center.
That decision prompted a sharp response from Zimmerman, a River Falls Republican who serves on the Joint Finance Committee.
“Gov. Evers has one of the strongest veto pens in the country and he used it to abandon western Wisconsin and send additional funding to Madison,” he said in a news release.
Zimmerman said Friday that Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, are mulling an override of Evers’ veto.
One problem, varying solutions
The latest development occurred Thursday, Aug. 15, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers released a bill similar to the Democratic offering from earlier in the year, this time seeking $5 million in grants for “regional crisis stabilization facilities.”
Schachtner is one of two Democrats co-sponsoring the bill, along with two Republicans. She said the proposal would establish resources that are spread out around five regions in the state, though not necessarily brick-and-mortar facilities.
“Keeping it as close to home is the best option,” she said of the proposal, which she said could offer programming. “It’s really as simple as that.”
The alternative proposal, which calls for a single facility, would likely mean funding an expansion at Eau Claire’s Sacred Heart St. Joseph’s Hospital. While the legislation doesn’t specify a location, a May 30 letter from hospital president Andrew Bagnall describes a 22-bed expansion there.
“Based on our discussion, we understand that you will bring forward a proposed $15 million line-item for inclusion in this year’s state budget to cover renovation costs and some start-up operational costs associated with this expansion,” Bagnall wrote to Sen. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls.
Zimmerman, who was not at the Chippewa Falls meeting, said that while an Eau Claire hospital was initially discussed, he said it was later determined “we should do further evaluations … before settling in there.”
And there’s a third option percolating.
Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, is poised to release a long-developing bill that he said would fund beds in western Wisconsin hospitals through a pilot program. He said the program would be voluntary for hospitals, which would be reimbursed 80 percent by the state and 20 percent from county governments.
“Let’s create access where we live,” Stafsholt said, adding that his bill will call for the pilot program to be evaluated once it’s complete in two to three years.
He said the bill will cost the state about $2 million.
Stafsholt said he will be supportive of Bernier’s legislation but won’t give up on his own bill, which he expects to release in the fall session. If hers is the one that gets traction, he said “that would be fine with me.”
“As long as we have access on this side of the state, it’s a win for the region,” Stafsholt said.
Schachtner said she already suspects politics may edge out her bill in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“I would be very surprised” if it gets a hearing, she said Monday.
Schachtner said she hopes others involved in negotiations will open to compromise.
“Each one of us has a valid perspective,” she said. “None of our perspectives should be eliminated because of the letter behind our name.”