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Mental health and substance abuse services in La Crosse, Jackson and Monroe counties will be regionalized and potentially expanded with a $600,000 federal block grant.

The grant, announced at a press conference in La Crosse on Thursday, is for a three-year pilot project for the Western Region Integrated Care Consortium, which includes the three counties.

“The intent is not to have three counties work closely together,” said Matt Strittmater, manager of the La Crosse County Human Service Department’s mental health recovery programs. “The intent is to design a new structure where services cross county lines.”

The consortium aims to provide equitable and efficient access to about 30 core services, ranging from crisis intervention to in-home mental health services for children, outpatient mental health treatment, peer specialists and a variety of other services, he said.

“It could become a model for the state,” said Strittmater, who will manage the consortium.

It also will help the consortium tap into the $30 million slated

in the state budget to expand mental health services next year, he said.

Strittmater has been meeting for several months with Jackson and Monroe county health officials to lay the groundwork for the project, one of two such pilots in the state.

“Our counties are different, with different populations and trends,” he said. “We need to know them to meet them with a set of consistent services in each of these counties.

“We will capitalize on community resources, not replace them, and expand without the need for additional tax levies,” he said.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Kitty Rhoades, who spoke at the press conference and presented an oversized $600,000 check to the counties’ officials, said the regional approach will reorganize delivery of mental health services.

Many rural counties don’t have access to some of the services, such as crisis intervention and peer counseling, that urban ones do, she said.

“My access to care shouldn’t be limited by the geography of where I live,” she said.

Beth Smetana, human services director in Jackson County, said her county’s rural nature and sparse population limits services.

Jackson County has about 20,500 residents, compared with about 45,000 in Monroe County and 116,000 in La Crosse County.

“This project allows us to benefit from broader resources,” Smetana said.

Jackson County has contracted for mental health services and, although Smetana said the vendors do a good job, she said regionalization will save money while expanding services.

“We don’t have the infrastructure now,” she said, noting that the county has just five mental health counselors and one psychiatrist.

Monroe County Human Services Director Linda Lazer said, “We are really headed for new heights, with the administrative savings we will have and avoid duplication of services.”

Guiding the consortium is a citizen advisory committee that includes both providers and consumers from each county, so those who use the services provide input, Lazer said.

The $30 million the state budget targets for mental health is intended for regional setups, so the consortium will be able to capitalize on that, Strittmater said.

“In La Crosse County, we might be able to double the number of children receiving mental health services,” which has a waiting list of 50 to 70 children, he said.

The consortium plans informational sessions in each county next month, and some unified services could begin as early as March, Strittmater said.

The other pilot project, called the Western Region Recovery and Wellness Consortium, includes Barron, Buffalo, Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin and Pierce counties.

“We will rely heavily on these projects for information on how to improve services,” Rhoades said. “We’re going to do this together. We can do this in a better way.”

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