The future of Milwaukee County's Mental Health Complex

Milwaukee County believes it's Mental Health Complex on Watertown Plank Road is outdated and wants to close it, but doing so is not an easy process.

"I think this community has relied on this as a safety net," said Hector Colon, Director of the County's Health and Human services. Colon believes the complex is no longer a suitable facility for the needs of patients today.

"These types of long term institutions that have care for mental ill patients don't exist anymore," Colon added.

That's why the County wants to privatize it's services. A few months ago, they began a search for a private company to provide in-patient mental health services. Two companies submitted proposals, but the county decided to go a different direction.

"We got two vendors that had a good reputation but they were forensic focused and our clients are not forensic, so we felt they weren't in line with our vision," Colon said.

The County now hopes local health systems will step up to this need in order to expand to more community based services.

Milwaukee County Judge David Borowski sits on cases at the Mental Health Complex. He's concerned about the process taking place, but agrees that the facility needs to be closed down the line.

"It's a very difficult situation but it's one that needs to be dealt with," Borowski said. "One of the questions is... are they going to be able to find anybody, any facility or entity who can provide services for the chronically mentally ill? -It may come to that in the next year or 18 months, that there's just not one entity able to perform that service," Borowski said.

Colon says he understands the concerns but insists the county is not trying to walk away from the responsibility of taking care of these patients. He says he is confident that this is the best way to move forward with the complex.

"We've decreased our psychiatric in-patient admissions by 50%, using 2010 as a baseline. Emergency detentions are down by 30% and emergency room visits by 20%," Colon explained.

The goal is for the entire mental health complex to be closed by 2018. However, the long term care unit, which currently houses only 10 residents, will close by the end of this year. Those residents will be transitioned into high quality housing units.

As part of County Executive Chris Abele's proposed 2016 budget, the day hospital at the complex would be demolished next year. However, the Milwaukee County board finance committee is not recommending the demolition at this point.

"The Day Hospital is a vacant, out-of-date, and inefficient building. It needs $200,000 in electrical updates and would cost the County between $600,000-$1 million per year to maintain the empty building vs the one-time cost of $3 million for demolition," according to Kimberly Kane, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Health and Human Services.

The complex costs more than $10 million dollars a year to operate.

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