EAU CLAIRE — Three area legislators discussed several aspects of Wisconsin’s 2021-23 budget that passed in July, including education and mental health, during an Eggs and Issues event Friday morning hosted by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
All lawmakers were pleased that the state allocated $15 million to allow HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls to add 22 beds to serve patients needing mental health services.
“I think that’s going to definitely help the Chippewa Valley and ... the rest of the state,” said Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona.
James said addressing mental health is an ongoing struggle likely made worse by the isolation and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to continue being dedicated to this,” James said. “Mental health is not going anywhere.”
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, agreed and noted that reactive spending for additional beds is needed but is only one part of addressing mental health challenges. Another aspect is proactive programs that can prevent people from requiring mental health services.
“We need to have the beds for people,” Emerson said. “We need to have the resources, we need to have more counselors, we need to have more therapists, we need to have more psychiatrists in the area, but we also need to have programs set up to help people so they never get to that crisis point to begin with. That’s when we’re truly going to make a difference with mental health.”
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, mentioned that increased access for telehealth services can play a role in addressing regional mental health challenges going forward. If someone requires care, he or she can make a video call from home instead of driving an hour to Eau Claire, for example.
James also mentioned a proposed bill that would decriminalize possession of fentanyl test strips, which he said could help citizens and law enforcement determine if drugs contain the potentially fatal substance.
Emerson supported the proposal and noted that substance abuse should be treated through the lens of public health instead of costly penalties.
“This is the way we need to tackle our drug issue: treating it like the health issue that it is,” Emerson said.
All three legislators were optimistic that the second phase of funding for the new UW-Eau Claire science building will be passed eventually. The new science building, which would replace 58-year-old Phillips Hall, received $109 million in the state’s 2019-21 budget for its first construction phase. The second half of funding appears in a long-range plan for 2025-27, and lawmakers believe that will come to fruition.
Emerson expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more funding in the state budget for schools, which she believes is a great long-term investment. She also noted that student loan forgiveness could help young professionals entering the Wisconsin job market.
“If we want to increase our workforce, if we want to make this a state where people want to move here, to raise their family, to establish their presence here, we need to invest in education,” Emerson said. “We need to do it in a way that’s actually going to help classrooms.”
The event was held in a hybrid format, with James and Summerfield participating remotely and Emerson attending in-person at the Pablo Center at the Confluence.