Governor-elect Tony Evers answers our key mental health questions

After the results of the Wisconsin Primary Elections were announced on August 14th, we invited all winning candidates serving Dane County to respond to five questions aimed at addressing candidates’ stances on several key mental health issues: early intervention, access to care, decriminalization of mental illness, Medicaid, and housing. 

Now Governor-elect Tony Evers was the only primary election winner to provide NAMI Dane County with a response in August.

Questions:

NAMI: How will you support the education system to ensure that school staff has the resources and knowledge to recognize, support, and improve outcomes for students with mental health care needs?

Tony Evers: As a former educator, principal, district administrator, and now as Wisconsin’s State Superintendent of Schools, education and helping kids has always been an important part of my life. With one in five students facing mental health issues, educators and schools are the frontlines in meeting this challenge.

Early intervention is key for kids, who spend a large portion of their childhood learning and growing in schools. My budget proposes a tenfold increase in mental health funding for schools, including:

Fully-funding collaborative mental health grants, which bring together schools and the community mental health systems to serve the needs of students and families. Funding was only available for one-third of applicants this year, and a challenge this pressing statewide requires full funding.

Hiring more staff addressing mental health, who are critical for healthy schools. Currently, the state provides support for school social workers, this proposal would expand it to include school psychologists, nurse and counselors.

Expanding statewide mental health training and youth suicide prevention, which will expand current efforts around trauma, AODA, mental health first aid.

With over 80% of mental health incidents currently going untreated, we must commit to ensuring kids in Wisconsin have the support they need.

NAMI: How will you make sure that health insurance plans provide equal access to mental health care and substance use care, and what will you do to eliminate barriers to accessing mental health care in our community?

Tony Evers: Too few people in Wisconsin have access to affordable health insurance that provides adequate, comprehensive coverage.

As Governor, I will extend protections for all Wisconsinites with pre-existing health conditions. Estimates indicate that half of all residents in the state have some sort of pre-existing condition. These conditions can be physical health-related ailments like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, but they can also be mental health-related conditions like depression. Regardless of the type, no person with a pre-existing condition should have to live in fear of having their insurance coverage cutoff because of costs to insurance companies.

Additionally, I will accept the federal Medicaid funding, which helped significantly reduce costs in Minnesota, and champion a BadgerCare public option, ensuring health care access for everyone.

Finally, I will use the bargaining and regulatory power of the state to stabilize the health insurance marketplace and reduce down costs for prescription drugs.

It is important that individuals living with mental health issues have freedom when it comes to who they are seeing for their needs and which treatment and medications they have access to. We cannot return to the days when health insurance companies held all the power and patients could not advocate for their own health decisions and were limited based on costs.

NAMI: What is your position with regard to the stigmatization and criminalization of individuals with mental health care needs? What solutions and supports will you advocate for that would reduce the number of individuals with mental health care needs being arrested and/or incarcerated in our community?

Tony Evers: The fact that Wisconsin spends more on Corrections, than the entire UW System speaks volumes about our priorities as a state. We must recognize that living with a mental health condition is not a crime. We need a Governor who will take a stand and make bold reforms to our criminal justice system that address arrests, incarceration and re-entry, including:

Prevention & Diversion: First, much like early intervention in schools, we must invest in treatment and diversion programs to keep non-violent offenders out of jail and also increase transparency, accountability, and communication with law enforcement.  If red states like Texas can do it, we can too.

Correctional Reform: I would end the use of solitary confinement, expand access to mental health and educational services, and fix the broken parole system, including stopping crimeless revocations that incarcerate individuals for minor rules violations.

Re-Entry: Offenders who have completed their sentence should have access to the assistance they need, including affordable housing, employment with a living wage, and ongoing mental health support

As a state, we should prioritize keeping individuals out of the criminal justice system and getting them the treatment and services they need. It is moral, just and economically prudent pathway forward.

NAMI: What are your plans to strengthen Wisconsin’s Medicaid program and protect against cuts that could reduce access and supports individuals with mental health care needs can access through programs like Comprehensive Community Services, Children’s Long-Term Support Program and Family Care?

Tony Evers: One of the very first things I would do as Governor, would be to accept the federal Medicaid expansion dollars and champion the bill by State Senator LaTonya Johnson and Rep. Eric Genrich to create a Badger Care public option, providing health care access for those that cannot afford private insurance on Wisconsin’s health insurance exchange. 

These expansions would help insure thousands more Wisconsinites who are struggling to find affordable health insurance and would save over a billion dollars. Currently, residents just across the border in Minnesota pay about half the price as we do for health insurance on the state exchange because of their state’s willingness to accept this expansion.

In contrast, Walker’ reinsurance plan is projected to reduce the number of people covered by insurance, while only providing subsidies to those who making $50,000 - $250,000 annually.

Access to quality, affordable health should be a right, not a privilege; we need to expand Medicaid and ensure people receive the care and support they need.

NAMI: What will you do to increase access to secure affordable and secure housing for individuals with mental health care needs within our community?

Tony Evers: In the last few years, Dane County’s population growth was twice the national average, and represented 77% of Wisconsin’s population growth. As a rapidly growing community, much of Dane County faces a significant transit and housing shortage, pushing affordable housing past crisis levels.

For those struggling with chronic mental health issues, addiction, or homelessness, safe and stable housing are essential for perseverance and recovery. To meet these challenges, the state needs to partner with local communities to build more integrated affordable housing stock, expand funding for rental subsidies, work to expand the number of landlord willing to offer subsidized housing, and craft just laws and regulations that protect renters (particularly our most vulnerable neighbors).

Walker and Republican legislators have dismantled or pre-empted protections for renters, which disproportionately impacts people of color, hurts low-income families, and create massive barriers for folks struggling with mental health issues or homelessness. As Governor, I will work to restore renter protections and return local control to our communities, who are best positioned to innovate and address these challenges.

Congratulations and thank you, Governor-elect Evers!