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Supervisors debate timing of mental health project

By Joe Lanane

Milwaukee County should pause in its pursuit of a new mental health building, according to at least two supervisors who argue the project design depends on a review of services.

“It sounds like they want to build another hospital and do the same thing they’re doing right now, and I’m not sure that’s the best option at this point,” County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo said. “If we’re going to build a new hospital, we need to make sure it is going to serve us for the next 30 to 40 years.”

But Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic said the county must take immediate steps toward a new Mental Health Care Center rather than wait for service reports from the Milwaukee County Department of Audit, the Mental Health Community Advisory Board and the Human Services Research Institute. The three reports focus on patient care, patient safety and gaps in the services offered to mental health patients.

“Those other groups are important, but we determine policy,” Dimitrijevic said. “They are going to make suggestions only on service-delivery problems. But they are not involved in the construction of a new health facility.”

The existing Behavioral Health Division building is facing more than 100 safety violations, Dimitrijevic said, the county must act now to start construction of a new Mental Health Care Center by next year.

“The notion or the comments of those who think we’re moving too fast must not realize we already wasted $2 million on code violations, and I’m not willing to wait any longer,” she said. “We weren’t even moving in this direction before — we were just wasting money on the current facility.”

Sanfelippo said he does not necessarily oppose a new facility, but the reports should shape the design.

“Before we make a final determination on what size facility and what layout to use,” he said, “we first need to determine what services we want to deliver.”

Sanfelippo and Supervisor Patricia Jursik have agreed it is too difficult to predict what services a new facility should include, but both said any new mental health building should complement, rather than duplicate, what the private sector offers.

Jursik did not return repeated calls for comment.

Jerry Heer, Milwaukee County director of audit, said his department’s service review will focus narrowly on the safety of long-term mental health care patients. He said county supervisors should use the report for both the existing complex and the proposed hospital.

“I think our focus will be on more the programs and services delivered and less driven by any specific facility — current or future,” Heer said. “Even if we were to decide in the next two to three months to do a new building, we would still want to ensure safety at the current structure.”

Sanfelippo said the three reports will drastically shift how much effort the county dedicates to mental health.

“It’s not to say we can completely get out of the mental health care service,” he said. “I’m just not sure five to 10 years from now that model will be same as it is today.”

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