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Mental health advocates alarmed at rise in La Crosse County suicides

La Crosse County suicide prevention advocates, who saw hope when the number of people who took their own lives in 2016 dropped seven from the year before, are reeling with the news that the tally for 2017 rose by seven.


The 24 people who died at their own hands ranged in age mostly from 25 to 50 and included seven women and 17 men, county Medmical examiner Tim Candahl said. Even as the total reverted to its 2015 level, it was two fewer than the record set in 2016.

Candahl, who was at a loss to explain the rebound, said gunshots were the predominant cause of death, with others including overdoses, hanging, blood loss and asphyxiation.

One suicide has occurred in the county so far this year, recorded on New Year’s Day, he said.


“Damn, it’s frustrating,” said Judy Shoults, a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative. “I guess I’m sad more than anything.”

Shoults, of Onalaska, and other mental health advocates have expressed similar frustrations in the past when their ramped-up efforts to promote awareness and mental health services don’t reach everyone who needs help.

“Maybe people are just not reaching out,” she said. “It’s the same old same old, so we just have to keep plugging. But sometimes, if they call to get help, they get put on a waiting list.”

Advocates persevere, knowing the toll might have been higher without their efforts, she said.

Reaching even one person who feels depressed is worth the effort, she said.

“I think I’m getting burned out,” she said. “I’m going to be 67, and it does get to you. But I think I need to keep on plugging.

“I don’t want them to be there. I was there 16 years ago,” Shoults said, recalling her own bouts with deep depression that required several attempts at recovery.

“I was lucky,” she said. “I had a supportive spouse and good care, but I worked hard, too.”

Education efforts of the Suicide Prevention Initiative, the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area, the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and others to increase awareness are paying off in some respects, she said.

“I do see people being more compassionate, and people are talking” openly about suicide and how to battle it, she said.


Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Borton Construction carpenter Jared Pavek guides fifth-floor ceiling beams into place Monday at The Hub on Sixth mixed-use redevelopment of the former La Crosse County Administration Center. Monday's high temperature in La Crosse was 42 degrees, and the National Weather Service predicts a high of 45 degrees today.

Energy regulators reject plan to prop up coal, nuclear plants

Federal regulators have shot down a Trump administration plan to subsidize coal and nuclear energy that consumer advocates warned could dramatically increase American utility bills.

Last year Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to craft a rule designed to guarantee additional revenue for electricity generating plants with a 90-day supply of fuel on hand.

Perry said the measure was needed to slow the retirement of those plants, which increasingly struggle to compete as cheap natural gas has driven wholesale prices down. Perry argues that these legacy baseload plants are critical to “grid resiliency” and should be compensated for remaining in service.

The clean energy policy group Energy Innovation estimated the proposed rule could cost American consumers up to $10.6 billion a year, with most of the proceeds benefiting five companies.

Noting past efforts aimed at grid resiliency, the five-member commission said the proposed rule did not meet statutory standards for adjusting rate structures.

Comments submitted by the companies charged with operating the grid “do not point to any past or planned generator retirements that may be a threat to grid resilience,” the commission wrote.

The commission instead directed the nation’s grid operators to submit information “on certain resilience issues and concerns” and says it will decide then whether further action is needed to address grid resilience.

An array of utilities argued the rule would have unfairly burdened Midwestern consumers, who already pay for reliability services.

Therefore, customers who are already paying for coal-fired plants operated by Xcel Energy or Dairyland Power would also be forced to support unprofitable merchant plants in other states, essentially paying twice for reliability.

Though applauded by coal and nuclear interests, the proposal was panned by manufacturers and other industrial customers, including representatives of Wisconsin and Minnesota mining and paper companies, who urged the commission to scrap it entirely, arguing there are already systems in place to ensure resilience and many of the premises underlying the proposal are “are vastly overstated or demonstrably false.”

Gene therapy offers long-term treatment for mice with diabetes

The newly resurgent field of gene therapy, which recently produced treatments for blood cancers and blindness, has taken a step toward fighting a scourge that is on the rise worldwide: diabetes.

In research reported last week in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists showed that a single infusion of a virus containing two handpicked genes restored normal blood sugar levels in mice with Type 1 diabetes.

Although the effects of the therapy faded after four months, prompting the mice to return to their diabetic state, the equivalent improvement in humans could last for several years, the researchers said.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone needed to metabolize the sugar in foods. In Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas can still make some insulin but the body isn’t able to use it properly.

The experimental therapy aimed to tweak one type of pancreatic cell to make it step into the role of similar cells that are destroyed in diabetic patients.

The plan was to introduce two genetic changes into a group of cells known as alpha cells. Once their DNA was modified, the alpha cells would take over the job of making insulin.

When scientists used a bioengineered virus to introduce the two changes into human cells in the lab, the pancreatic alpha cells took on the insulin-producing function normally assigned to beta cells.

When tested in mice, the alpha cells modified by the experimental therapy did the same thing, allowing the animals to keep their blood sugar in check.

Dr. George K. Gittes, a University of Pittsburgh pediatric surgeon and the senior author of the new study, said he and his colleagues have already seen some success in testing the experimental therapy in non-human primates. Next, he said, his team will seek permission from the Food and Drug Administration to launch clinical trials using the viral gene therapy in patients with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

That effort comes at a pivotal time both for gene therapy and for diabetes, a metabolic disorder that has nearly doubled in prevalence across the globe since 1980.

In announcing the approval in late December of a gene therapy to treat an inherited form of blindness, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb touted the approach as one that “will become a mainstay in treating, and maybe curing, many of our most devastating and intractable illnesses.”

Until recently, using a virus to ferry genetic fixes to their targets has caused illness and death in patients. But advances in genetic engineering have made it possible to disarm viruses of their ability to sicken people without compromising their knack for sneaking into cells and altering their DNA.

With hundreds of experimental gene therapies now under development, Gottlieb said he has committed his agency to devise new ways to speed their path to patients.

“We’re at a turning point when it comes to this novel form of therapy,” he said.

If a gene therapy could reverse diabetes, the impact on human health could be huge. In the U.S. alone, diabetes afflicts roughly 30.3 million people, or 9.4 percent of the population.

In both types of the disease, insulin ceases to do its usual job of helping transport glucose from food to the body’s muscles and organs. In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system, for reasons unknown, attacks beta cells and crimps insulin supply. In Type 2 diabetes, beta cells die off after organs become resistant to insulin’s effects. In both cases, blood sugar reaches dangerous levels.

Having either form of the disease — especially if it is not controlled with diet, exercise and medications — raises a patient’s risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, vision problems and nerve and circulatory problems in the extremities.

The World Health Organization estimates that 422 million people around the world suffered from diabetes in 2014, up from 108 million in 1980. It is on the march in some of the most populous countries, where growing affluence is shifting diets and activity patterns in ways that increase obesity, and with it Type 2 diabetes.

As a prospective treatment for an autoimmune disorder such as Type 1 diabetes, gene therapy could offer unique advantages. The healthy alpha cells that are induced to change their function occupy much of the same real estate in the pancreas as the beta cells. The two types of cells even look similar, and alpha cells are plentiful, so they are readily available for reprogramming.

After the defanged virus delivered the instructions for making two proteins — called Pdx1 and MafA — into the pancreas, some alpha cells began functioning like beta cells. Yet the change prompted no alarm in the immune system, since the alpha cells had been there all along.

For those with Type 1 diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes because it is usually diagnosed at a young age), gene therapy could offer an alternative to existing treatments.

Currently, the only alternative to relying on a lifetime of insulin injections is to undergo a transplant of a portion of the pancreas, or of specialized islet cells from a deceased donor. While such transplants can jump-start the resumption of insulin production, patients who get them must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. Those drugs are costly, intrusive and heighten the risk of developing infections.

Gittes and his colleagues have developed a way to deliver the therapy directly to the pancreas through a nonsurgical endoscopic procedure that is already widely performed. Once in the pancreas, the virus and its cell-altering payload appears to stay put, Gittes said, reducing the likelihood it could cause mischief elsewhere in the body.

“We’ve been excited about approaches like this,” said Andrew Rakeman, assistant vice president for research at JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “It has, at least theoretically, the possibility of restoring function in people whose beta cells have all been destroyed.”

was not permanent was “disappointing.” But, he added, “we have to take what’s reality. … Patients might need to be re-treated.”

At the same time, he said, further work by Gittes and his team may offer insights into what makes the immune system attack beta cells in the first place, and how to foil such attacks for longer periods.

Gittes said it is “quite realistic” that human clinical trials could be launched “in the immediate foreseeable future.” Those trials would be designed to test the safety and effectiveness of the experimental therapy in patients with both types of the disease, he said.


Jourdan Vian / Contributed photo 

A composite image shows La Crosse artist Landon Sheely's "Helping Hands" projected on the corner of the Main Street parking ramp. The Board of Public Works Monday gave Sheely approval to paint on the ramp.

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70 Bethany Lutheran residents fear eviction in Medicaid contract dispute

Sons, daughters and and other relatives are coping with angst and anger over the possibility that their elderly loved ones are among almost 70 residents at Bethany Lutheran Homes facilities who face eviction March 3 because of a contract dispute with their Medicaid insurance vendor.

Contract negotiations resumed Monday afternoon between Bethany Lutheran and officials of Inclusa, a managed-care organization based in Stevens Point that was formed in the merger of Community Care Connections of Wisconsin, Western Wisconsin Cares and ContinuUs a year ago.

For its part, “Bethany Lutheran Homes has no desire to terminate our existing contract or for any of the nearly 70 people affected to move away from our care,” according to a statement Bethany Lutheran CEO Todd Wilson issued Monday.

Inclusa CEO Mark Hilliker said a negotiating team was in La Crosse for talks with Bethany Lutheran officials.

Inclusa sent a letter to its clients Jan. 3 stating that it was unable to reach a contract agreement on residential rates during negotiations in November and December. As a result, Inclusa’s letter said, Bethany Lutheran planned to stop serving Inclusa members on March 3. Relatives of Bethany Lutheran residents who received the letter said it was tantamount to an eviction notice.

Bethany Lutheran facilities have cared for residents in the Family Care Medicaid Insurance Program for 17 years, Wilson’s statement said.

“We are hopeful an agreement can be reached so all residents can remain at our locations and Bethany Lutheran Homes can continue to provide the care residents and their families have come to expect,” the statement said.

Bethany Lutheran Homes, which is affiliated with Gundersen Health System and includes 22 member churches, has 10 facilities in La Crosse, Holmen and Onalaska that include services ranging from independent and assisted living to high-acuity assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing care and rehabilitation.

Among those upset about the possibility that Bethany Lutheran could drop Inclusa residents is Lynn Maher of Onalaska, whose mother, 91-year-old Lois Krueger, has lived at Eagle Crest South at 622 Bennora Lee Court in La Crosse for almost three years.

“She was one of the original tenants, and she loves it,” Maher said Monday. “She is in memory care, and she really needs a place that can watch over her.”

Krueger originally was paying her own way but needed to switch to Inclusa when her funds ran out, Maher said.

Maher said she moved her mom from Appleton and chose Eagle Crest under a contract she insisted stipulated that she couldn’t be evicted. When she checked the contract Monday, that page was missing, which “I can’t believe is an accident,” she said.

“I am so angry because any other place she would have had enough money to live until she was 112,” Maher said.

Her mother’s costs at Eagle Crest are $4,900 a month, compared with as little as $1,800 elsewhere, she said.

The problem for her mother and others now is that there are no alternatives available, especially with 70 people searching for housing, Maher said.

“It’s frightening for my mom, because she might have to go far away,” she said.

Frank Mauss of La Crosse, whose mother-in-law, Lee Wilcox, moved from California about 18 months ago to Bethany on Cass to be close to him and his wife, Sharon Lukert, expressed frustration, too.

“We have been searching but can’t connect because (facilities) take only a limited number of Inclusa” members, he said. Many don’t even have waiting lists, because “there are so many full-paying, self-supporting” residents.

“What are all of these 70 people going to do?” Mauss asked.