Staci Allan, business development officer at Footprints to Recovery, joined forces with Lake Behavioral Hospital to remove barriers to mental health treatment in Lake County and Southeast Wisconsin. Allan, who has worked in the behavioral health field for over a decade and is a long-time advocate for access to life-saving substance abuse and mental health treatment, was asked to participate in an important legislative hearing on March 23, 2020. The hearing sought to change the section of Wisconsin’s Chapter 51 law, which prevents people experiencing an acute psychiatric episode to be transported to an Illinois psychiatric provider, even if that provider is closer. There is precedent, as this cooperative legislation is already in reciprocal laws with Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota; all of them able to accept Chapter 51 patients from Wisconsin.
Allan was asked to join the hearing to advocate for the legislation change. Others in attendance included Illinois Senator Adrienne Johnson; Lake Behavioral Hospital CEO Cindy DeMarco, LCSW; Lake Behavioral Hospital Director of Business Development Charla Waxman, MBA, EdD; and several Wisconsin and Illinois community constituents such as aldermen and mayors.
Dr. Waxman, who spearheaded the hearing said, “When they told me to call three people on the other side of the border, Staci was my first call. She has been a great partner at Lake. [She] would not be the only person I could have called, but we have a longstanding relationship in the community, she knows what she is talking about, and she is fair. I knew we would get what we needed.”
Allan is well known for her outreach work in the behavioral health field as well as her role with the Illinois School District 21 Board of Education and her campaign work in local elections. “My role and reputation is to discuss access and barriers to treatment and how to remove them legislatively,” said Allan. “Lake Behavioral Hospital is right on the Wisconsin border. If someone is in a psychosis event, sometimes the hospital over the state line might actually be closer than in Illinois. It’s not unusual for someone in Illinois to get caught up in a system they don’t understand.”
The need for legislative change became apparent to Lake Behavioral Hospital when they began hearing from concerned fire chiefs in northern Illinois border towns and emergency room professionals in Kenosha and Pleasant Prairie that because of the Wisconsin Chapter 51 mental health commitment law, they couldn’t send Illinois residents back across the border to their home state for inpatient psychiatric treatment, even though Lake Behavioral Hospital is only a 15-to-20-minute ride. Current Wisconsin laws prevent acute psychiatric transport from crossing state lines. Officers and ER employees are often forced to transport Illinois patients as much as one to three hours north in Wisconsin to secure treatment.
Many ER workers in Southeast Wisconsin and mental health professionals were also frustrated with the legal barriers that prevented them from sending Wisconsin residents to specialty treatment centers in Illinois, even when they were closer than Wisconsin facilities. For example, patients from the Kenosha and Racine areas would be cared for much closer to their own community when receiving care in Waukegan, Illinois.
Lake Behavioral Hospital decided to take the lead in pursuing legislation that would be a collaborative arrangement between Wisconsin and Illinois, allowing facilities in Illinois to accept and treat patients from Wisconsin who are subject to Chapter 51 of the Wisconsin mental health code. Patients could then receive treatment near their own community. The revision would also correct the treatment accessibility issue, regardless of border or state, for Wisconsin residents who would like to choose treatment closer to home even though it may be in Illinois. This new bill would give them access to many treatment providers in northern Illinois counties, not just Lake Behavioral Hospital.
“We’re all doing the same job. We’re all in it for the same reason. If we’re a bunch of islands or the relationships are acrimonious at all, nobody benefits,” said Dr. Waxman. “It’s just a different law in Wisconsin, and we want [people] to be able to make their choice. We can provide multiple layers of treatment, but we couldn’t serve that Kenosha involuntary patient without that change.” The legislation change is expected to be approved after a second hearing in which some wording changes will be implemented.
“We know many people come in with complicated issues even if they’re involuntary, many times by a substance abuse event,” said Allan. “These efforts solidify the relations we have with not just Lake, but with their entire system. We want to be a good partner in Lake County. We were there as advocates and that was the part that was very appreciated.”