Today, Representative Joe Sanfelippo and Senator Leah Vukmir are introducing a bill to create a Milwaukee County Mental Health Board to oversee and direct the delivery and financing of mental health services in Milwaukee County. Although we have not yet seen the bill, and are not endorsing a specific proposal, we do endorse the need for significant improvements in mental health services in Milwaukee County, including improved oversight and accountability. We commend Rep. Sanfelippo and Senator Vukmir for their strong commitment to improving publicly funded mental health services in Milwaukee County and to ensuring that residents can access high quality, recovery oriented mental health and AODA services with increased access to community based services.
Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) is open to considering other oversight models for delivery of mental health services in Milwaukee County, and potentially statewide. In 1991, DRW (then WI Coalition for Advocacy) filed the Joan S. v. Gudeman lawsuit, challenging Milwaukee County’s lack of community based mental health and developmental disability services. One of the recommendations that resulted from that lawsuit and was included in the Milwaukee Master Plan was to implement a mental health authority. Twenty plus years later, that has yet to move forward; tragically, many of the other recommendations which called for a major expansion of community services have yet to be implemented.
While we value the intent of this proposal and are very open to considering other oversight models, any change will require significant advocate, legal and structural review to protect people receiving county mental health services, ensure government agencies do not abdicate their legal and fiduciary responsibilities, and that all regulatory requirements are considered and met. In addition, we believe it could be beneficial to evaluate other oversight models that have been used in urban areas similar to Milwaukee, to identify what has worked well and could be adapted for Milwaukee, possibly through a Legislative Council Study Committee.
Most important, we need to put politics aside and demand that the needs of people living with mental illness and their families come first. We can and must act now to improve publicly funded mental health services in Milwaukee County including protecting the rights of our residents to access safe, high quality mental health services. This must include improved access to community based services, improvements in the safety and quality of inpatient services, and reducing the overreliance on traumatizing crisis, inpatient and institutional care. Ultimately, that should be the litmus test for any proposal.