Milwaukee County, four health systems to develop mental health emergency center


Milwaukee County and Milwaukee’s four largest health systems plan to develop a mental health emergency center on the city’s near north side.

The county’s Behavioral Health Division, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension Wisconsin, Froedtert Health and Children’s Wisconsin said they have entered into a letter of intent for the joint venture, marking a major milestone in a years-long process of redesigning the county’s mental health delivery system.

The partners didn’t disclose the exact location of the emergency center but said in an announcement Thursday it will be developed on a county-owned site on Milwaukee’s near north side, an area that is more accessible to many of the patients who seek county psychiatric crisis services.

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Currently, 93% of patient visits to the Psychiatric Crisis Services Center at the Behavioral Health Division’s Mental Health Complex in Wauwatosa originate from the city of Milwaukee, and more than 70% of the PCS patients live in close proximity to the proposed location, the organizations said.

The center will be developed and operated as a joint venture, with Milwaukee County being responsible for 50% of the construction, startup and operating costs and the health systems each contributing equal amounts to make up the other 50%. Construction and other startup costs are anticipated to be $12 million.

The project is expected to be funded in part by philanthropic support from other providers, foundations and individuals. The partners are also seeking reimbursement sources available under Medicaid. The center will provide services to Milwaukee County residents regardless of ability to pay, and could have capacity to support surrounding counties in the future.

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Advocate Aurora will manage the new emergency center and will be responsible for employing physicians and staff, and the day-to-day operations on behalf of the joint venture. The new center, when open, is expected to employ about 70 full-time equivalent staff.

The organizations have retained CG Schmidt and JCP Construction for the project.

Final agreements for the project are scheduled for approval in February 2021, followed by community engagement, design and construction. The target is to be operational by spring 2022.

“We’re no longer looking at only public or only private solutions to help those suffering from mental illness,” said Milwaukee County executive David Crowley. “The beauty of this new center is that it’s creating a first-of-its kind partnership between BHD and our community health systems that offers an overarching continuum of care. On their worst possible day, those in need can come to the mental health emergency center to get help in a humane way. It will be a community place of healing where residents will get the care and love that they deserve.”

The team is currently developing its care model for the new facility but said it will be based on BHD’s Psychiatric Crisis Services, which functions as a mental health emergency department at the regional medical center in Wauwatosa.

For nearly a decade, the BHD has been working to shift away from providing institutionalized care on its Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus – which is largely considered outdated and expensive – to offering mental health and substance use services in community-based settings. The overhaul of the BHD was the subject of a 2016 BizTimes Milwaukee cover story.

A 2018 report commissioned by the BHD envisioned its new services delivery model including a new psychiatric emergency department, expanding crisis resource centers, providing more mental health services in federally qualified health centers and sending more clinicians out with police officers to respond to crises. That report also stressed the need to bridge the disconnect between public and private providers in caring for those with mental illness.

The new emergency center also represents a significant step in the county’s planned move off its sprawling, 900,000 square-foot Mental Health Complex. Currently, mental health emergency department, observation and inpatient services are provided there.

The Milwaukee County BHD hospital, including the PCS emergency department, will remain open until the new mental health emergency center is operational.

“For nearly a decade, BHD has been transforming to become a best practice model of care, in partnership with advocates and consumers, health systems, community health centers, and other community-based organizations,” said Michael Lappen, Behavioral Health Division administrator. “This new center will be an integral component of an improved crisis delivery system, intended to serve all patients regardless of the severity of their illness or ability to pay. The emergency center will be part of the continuum of new and planned crisis services including expanded mobile, residential, peer support and outpatient services.”

Soon, patients needing inpatient services will receive them at a privately-operated hospital in West Allis. The county in 2018 decided to outsource its inpatient behavioral health services to Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services, which is building its 120-bed Granite Hills Hospital at 1706 S. 68th St. It’s expected to open in August 2021.

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