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DRW Statement on Passage of Milwaukee County Mental Health Board Bill

Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) thanks legislators for passing SB565, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board (MCMHB) bill, with nearly unanimous support. We believe this legislation has the potential to advance significant improvements in the Milwaukee County mental health system and ultimately improve the lives of people living with mental illness.

DRW is the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy Agency for the State of Wisconsin, charged with independently investigating instances of abuse and neglect in institutions. One of our highest priorities has been protecting the rights of people served at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, and working for systemic improvements in the mental health system.

Although we did not support the initial proposal, DRW is pleased to support the amended proposal which has been passed by the Legislature. We thank the authors, Representative Joe Sanfelippo and Senator Leah Vukmir, for working with stakeholders to address many of the suggestions and concerns raised at the public hearing, and thank Representative Sandy Pasch for her leadership in crafting the substitute amendment.

A primary concern of those who spoke at the public hearing for this bill was the need to address safety and quality of care for individuals at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. One of the most significant components of SB565 is the requirement for the Department of Health Services to perform or contract for an operational and programmatic audit of the Mental Health Complex by the Department of Health Services, and for recommendations from the auditors to be released in a report by December 2014. We strongly endorse the need for an external independent audit as it will provide an opportunity to thoroughly assess the current system and identify recommendations for the future of the Mental Health Complex.

In addition, we support the values contained in SB565 that prioritize a community-based, person-centered, recovery-oriented system that seeks to protect the personal liberties of individuals living with mental illnesses. These are values DRW has long promoted. We also commend the bill’s recognition of the high value that must be placed on meaningful participation by individuals living with mental illness as well as family members and advocates through their inclusion as members of the MCMHB. This personal perspective is critical to operationalize a recovery-oriented philosophy.

The establishment of this new Board has the potential to be a significant positive step, but that alone will not “fix” the system or improve care for people. Community stakeholders, including DRW, must continue to monitor this process and take vigorous action 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 and supports. Our organization will be looking specifically for signs of significantly improved access to quality community based services, improvements in the safety and quality of inpatient services, and a reduction in the overreliance on traumatizing crisis, inpatient and institutional care. DRW will continue to strongly advocate for continuing systemic improvements and to ensure that the needs of people with mental illness and their families come first.