Family members and concerned parties could get the right to petition county officials to detain individuals with mental illnesses in an emergency if a new bill is approved by the Legislature.

The bill, which received a public hearing Tuesday along with 11 other bills, would not only allow law enforcement officers to take mentally ill individuals into custody but would also allow any “interested parties” to petition for emergency detentions.

The bill would empower families to help individuals who are in imminent danger and gives such parties the opportunity to challenge the county’s decision, bill sponsor Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, said. 

Assembly Committee on Health member Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said she is concerned the bill’s language of “interested parties” is too broad because it could essentially allow any person to file a petition.

Jagler said he intends to clarify the language used, but intends for the interested parties to include family members and attending physicians.

Counties are also required to respond to the party’s request within 24 hours and provide a written response if their request is turned down under the bill. Parties would then be able to petition the court if their request is turned down and a judge could decide whether a temporary hold of the individual is necessary.

Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, senior legislative associate for the Wisconsin Counties Association, said it is possible counties would turn down requests because county employees are already working with the individuals but cannot reveal such records because of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Diedrick-Kasdorf said the bill could also likely lead to an increase in emergency detentions because families would have no other option if their request was denied.

Counties would also be required to pay court and attorney fees if their response to a family’s request is reversed by a judge, which would dramatically increase costs for counties, Todd Liebman, corporation counsel for Sauk County, said.

Taylor said she is concerned about the costs for the county, as Dane County already struggles with funding for mental healthcare.

“When I first read this, I thought, ‘This is going to cost a fortune for the counties,'” Taylor said.

Jagler said the payment of fees is a financial safeguard, since the “loser” of the petition, whether it be the family or the county, pays the court costs.

Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, said there is also a possibility of frivolous suits, such as a husband or wife in a contentious divorce trying to detain their significant other.

“When you’re talking about personal situations where someone is lying out of spite, that would be a felony,” Jagler said of Strachota’s example. “To give false testimony to try to get somebody committed is a felony. If a person tries to go down this avenue to get somebody detained, the court costs would go to the petitioner, but if a judge agrees with the petitioner, the county would pay the court costs.”

Other bills discussed at the hearing included:

  • A bill to increase funding for peer-run respite centers
  • A bill to reimburse costs for certain mental health services for participants in the Medical Assistance program
  • A bill that would require the Department of Health Services to award grants to mental health mobile crisis teams, amounting to $250,000 over the 2013-2015 biennium
  • A bill to require DHS to create and facilitate a child psychiatry consultation program to assist physicians with providing adequate treatment to pediatric patients