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Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series on Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare’s mental health unit. 

As Ascension Wisconsin restructures the Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare Group, the former Wheaton Franciscan Mental Health and Addiction Care Group is among the departments that have taken a big hit.

Ascension signed a letter of intent in October with the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters to take over all of its operations and corporate services in Southeast Wisconsin; eight hospitals, 350 medical group physicians, outpatient centers, transitional and long-term care facilities, home health and hospice, and nearly 11,000 associates as well as its corporate services.

Limited Access Means Jail For Some

Over the last two months, however, the unit has seen staff cut, a contract with temporary psychiatrists nixed, and the kids partial hospital and the Psychiatric Intensive Care (PIC) Unit closed. The unit had 54 beds for adult patients and 17 beds for adolescents and children in 2013. Now the number of beds has been reduced to 16 patients for the adult inpatient mental health unit and nine for adolescents and children. The PIC Unit had 10 beds, according to internal documents obtained by Racine County Eye.

Officials with Ascension Wisconsin would not confirm the exact number of those affected in the restructuring.

The changes mean that an average of 16 adults per day can be hospitalized for a mental health crisis for Racine and Kenosha counties, which have 363,000 residents. Kenosha County has no mental health hospital. When people are deemed a threat to themselves or others, law enforcement officials can take people who are having a mental health crisis to a mental health hospital instead of to jail. But when there aren’t enough beds for people with mental illnesses or they are refused access, law enforcement officials may take them to jail or another mental health facility sometimes hours away.

The suicide rate was 14 per 100,000 population and the hospitalization rate for psychiatric patients was 8.5 per 1,000 population in Racine County in 2013, according to the Department of Human Services.

Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said he was unaware of the changes on the unit.

“But we are aware of people being diverted to jail, it’s something that is definitely on our radar,” Delagrave said.

Ascension Wisconsin Restructures

System-wide, Ascension laid off about 150 people the last week of July. Some staff received early retirement buyout packages while others were offered jobs with reduced hours. Areas affected in the restructuring included health unit coordinators, human resource professionals, public relations, maintenance, nursing staff, risk management, and interpreters in multiple locations, said several unconfirmed sources.

However, Bernie Sherry, senior vice president of Ascension Health–Ministry Market, wrote a memo dated July 28 to staff acknowledging that the reductions had taken place throughout the former Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare Group.

“We are changing in a meaningful way right now by bringing our four healthcare organizations – Affinity Health System, Columbia St. Mary’s, Ministry Health Care and Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare – together as Ascension Wisconsin. Through these efforts, we will create a new organization, building upon our historical strengths,” the memo reads.

The transition plan is expected to be completed by the end of August.

Changes Made To Mental Health Unit

Hospital administrators closed the Psychiatric Intensive Care (PIC) Unit in early 2016 and integrated those patients into the 22-bed adult inpatient unit. It has also restricted the adult inpatient unit admissions by screening out “highly volatile and aggressive patients” for the past year, according to a memo written by Karen Molnar-Smith to employees in June 2016.

“We are still treating the majority of the types of patients previously served in the PIC unit. For patients who need a more intensive level of care than what is ideally provided in a community general hospital setting, we work to identify the appropriate treatment environments to meet those patients’ needs,” said Anne Ballantine, vice president of communications for Wheaton Franciscan.

But with people detained through the state’s mental health law, those who are a threat to others are aggressive and volatile.

The adolescent program also closed in June for the summer because hospital administrators plan to redesign the program to serve a larger number of adolescents in the future. In the meantime, Fresh Start, a program Wheaton offers in collaboration with the Racine Unified School District to help elementary students who have behavioral issues, is providing those services.

“As a health ministry of Ascension, All Saints is fully committed to continue serving individuals in need of mental health and addiction treatment services.  All the changes that we have made allow us to continue to deliver high-quality programs and services both now and into the future.  We provide a full continuum of mental health and addiction care to those in need including traditional outpatient services, intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs, and inpatient services,” Ballentine said.

Read more about the recent state violations.




Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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