Press Release

County Board Fiddles as Mental Health System Burns

An Open Letter to Media and Residents of Milwaukee County from Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo

By - Dec 11th, 2012 03:36 pm

Last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the federally mandated watchdog group Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) sent a letter to the State’s Department of Health Services requesting the Department suspend or terminate Milwaukee County’s license to operate its psychiatric hospital. The County Board reacted to this very serious and unprecedented request by doing absolutely nothing.

Within the last three years, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS has issued two separate immediate jeopardy citations to Milwaukee County, highlighting unacceptable deficiencies leading to life-threatening situations for our patients. More recently, we have learned that the District Attorney has opened a John Doe investigation into one of the six deaths that has occurred at the County facility this year, and there may be more. Hospital administration has also failed thus far to comply with approved Board policy, calling for a more community-based approach to our delivery of care model.

Despite the urgent need for community-based mental health services and continuing heavy use of the County’s psychiatric emergency room, the administration has yet to spend funds allocated for an expansion of community-based services — funds available since January 2012. Furthermore, the 2013 budget approved by the Board put the interests of employees ahead of patients, approving an amendment spending $400,000 to continue operating a case management program with County employees rather than community providers and denying amendments to expand community services using funds saved from downsizing inpatient care.

Yet, as all of these problems are revealed, the County Board fails to honor its oversight responsibility for these publicly funded services by continuing to turn a blind-eye toward the patients trapped within this system, opting instead to focus on events in an airplane hangar, issues solely under the control of the City, or when Santa Claus will be appearing at Kosciuszko Park.

After years of studies, warnings and repeated requests to modernize and to reform this vital program, for the County Board to sit back and do absolutely nothing is deplorable. The lives of people with mental illness hang in the balance. Clearly, their only hope is to have the State once again takeover where the County Board has failed.

I join DRW in calling on Secretary Smith to step-in and to take decisive action that will protect and improve the lives of these individuals with mental illness, who rely on safe and effective programs and services to maintain their health and their ability to be contributing members of our community.