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Growing retiree costs threaten Milwaukee County mental health services

Pensions and healthcare costs for Milwaukee County retirees could pose a threat to mental healthcare services in the future, panelists warned at a Wisconsin Health News event Tuesday.

Mike Lappen, the county’s Behavioral Health Division administrator, said a “very substantial amount” of the county’s tax levy could be “swallowed up by pension and legacy costs” unless something changes. By 2024, retiree costs could consume the entire tax levy, according to county estimates.

“I will tell you what doesn’t change is our statutory responsibilities, and our responsibilities to provide quality care and connect people to the care they need, no matter what the pay is,” he said. “We will figure out a way to make this work.”

The county anticipates saving money by outsourcing inpatient psychiatric services to Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services. It’s also closed long-term care units in recent years.

Barbara Beckert, Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Office director, said that growing legacy costs are a “very major concern.” If savings from the outsourcing aren’t invested in community and crisis services, “it’ll be a promise broken,” she said.

“I think when you have bricks and mortar, it’s harder to defund than it is to cut a line item in a community services budget,” she said. She hopes that doesn’t happen and that the county finds “other ways to generate revenue to fund these vital services.”

Dr. Jon Lehrmann, a member of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board and chairman of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, said he wasn’t aware of the “looming financial crisis” until he started serving on the board.

“We have declining funds to do something with behavioral health,” he said.

Lehrmann said that could be “a driving factor” in why some providers struggled to put forward a plan to take on inpatient services currently provided at the county’s hospital.

Watch a video from WisconsinEye of the event.


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