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Study: Low Income Residents in Milwaukee County Struggle to Access Mental Health Care

Ann-Elise Henzl
Dr. Richard Barthel demonstrates telepsychiatry technology by dialing up his nurse, Laurel Berglund, in Appleton.

A new study has turned up challenges for Milwaukee County as it tries to better serve residents with mental health needs.

A report from the Public Policy Forum shows low income residents, in particular, face several barriers to accessing care. The county has spent the past few years redesigning its behavioral health care system after a study exposed large scale problems providing for the neediest residents at the Mental Health Complex.

Rob Henken of the Public Policy Forum issued that report in 2010. He says up until that time, the county had been focusing many of its efforts on urgent care.

“We were very heavily dependent on providing crisis and emergency and inpatient services when people got to the point where they needed them, as opposed to trying to provide services in outpatient settings and hopefully averting people going into mental health crisis,” Henken says.

Henken says in response to the 2010 report, the county reduced the number of inpatient beds at the Mental Health Complex and began to focus on community-based outpatient services. Henken issued a new study on Tuesday that gauges the state of behavioral health care in the county today. He says he discovered there’s a deficit in certain types of service providers.

“We were able to document that there are provider shortages particularly in the area of psychiatrists who are accepting low income and Medicaid patients, but at the same time we also found there may be some excess capacity in the system that isn’t being appropriately utilized,” Henken says.

Henken says other challenges the study uncovered include multiple levels of governance and rapidly changing policies. He recommends the increased use of videoconferencing to connect patients with psychiatrists, and increasing Medicaid rates for behavioral health outpatient services.

Patricia Schroeder is administrator of services in Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division. She says she’s already called on the state to increase its Medicaid allotments, saying they're among the lowest in the nation.

"We’re very concerned about that across the state and as a result, we’ve seen some significant limitations in accessibility to a broad scope of services,” Schroeder says.

Meanwhile, the division’s Chief Medical Officer John Schneider says the county's patients will benefit if Wisconsin gets a better handle on its psychiatrist shortage -- something that's affecting all patients in need of mental health services, not just the county's. He's encouraged that the field is looking for ways to address the problem.

“One is related to working on increasing the number of students in medical schools and residency programs and psychiatry in particular and the Medical College is working on that,” Schneider says.

A report last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Wisconsin needs more than 200 additional psychiatrists in order to meet its needs.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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