Wis. Assembly OKs mental health bills

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly passed a set of bills Tuesday designed to enhance mental health care statewide, including proposals that would expand government coverage for mental health services, shore up services in underserved areas and pump more money into respite centers.

The 13 bills are part of a larger package of mental health-related legislation that Republicans are crafting based on recommendations from a task force that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos set up earlier this year. Vos, R-Burlington, said the total legislative package will cost about $5 million when it’s finished.

“What we’re talking about today is an awesome, comprehensive first step,” Vos told reporters before the Assembly convened.

One of the key measures in the package would allow emotionally disturbed children under Medicaid to go into in-home therapy without having to show a failure to succeed in outpatient therapy. It also would families under Medicaid to participate in in-home therapy even if a child in that family was enrolled in a day treatment program. In addition, the plan would allow Medicaid reimbursement for mental health service providers who work with patients through interactive video and audio links.

Another bill would create $1.5 million in fiscal year 2014-15 for grants for doctors and psychiatrists to practice in underserved areas. The Higher Educational Aids Board would award $750,000 to 12 doctors and $750,000 to 12 psychiatrists who work in an underserved area for at least a year. The providers would be free to use the money for whatever they like.

One proposal would add $250,000 to the roughly $1.3 million that Gov. Scott Walker included in the state budget to help create respite centers. The centers offer short-term stays for people grappling with mental health or drug abuse problems. They’re staffed by people who have struggled with drug abuse or mental health problems themselves.

Republicans passed the bills on voice votes and roll calls with no opposition from minority Democrats.

The bills go next to the state Senate, though that chamber held its last session day of the year on Tuesday and isn’t scheduled to reconvene until January. Dan Romportl, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an email to The Associated Press that most of the bills have a good chance of getting to the floor.

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