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Ascension–All Saints, formerly Wheaton Franciscan–All Saints, has cut staff, restricted admission for its mental health unit, closed the Psychiatric Intensive Care unit and kids partial hospital, and slashed its inpatient bed counts in an effort to “reset” the unit.

But they failed to communicate those changes to the community at a time when those services are desperately needed.

Last week I wrote two stories about Ascension-All Saints Behavioral Health Unit: one about the cutbacks Ascension has made and one about the violations they received before Ascension took over Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. It took me six weeks to write that story, mostly because I was waiting for Ascension to confirm what I had learned from the state, an internal document, and numerous internal sources. I wanted to give them a chance to respond with more than a two or three sentence response, but that never happened. I also requested an interview with Paul Mason, but was told the company would not elaborate on the cuts any further.

Difficulty In Getting Reaction

I explained that I had an internal document outlining cuts to the psychiatric intensive care unit, the kids’ partial hospital, the average daily census dropping for the adult inpatient unit dropping from 27 to 16, and how the violations were impacting the department. This prompted some response. Anne Ballantine, the former vice president of communications for Wheaton Franciscan who left while I was trying to write this story, issued the following statement:

“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,” Ballentine said.

These cuts are being made on the mental health unit at a time when mental health access is a huge challenge facing our community. Officials with the United Way of Racine County held a meeting at Ascension– All Saints and the mental health access issue was one of the items discussed. The cuts were announced to staff at the end of June, but Chief Operating Officer Paul Mason made no mention of the changes at the July 20 meeting.

Better Training Needed

After our story ran, well over 100 comments were made, here are just a few. But these comments underscore the need for better communication.

Manders Salamanders, another Racine County Eye reader, pointed out that the adult unit had some “terrible staff and was run haphazardly at best” and she was glad that something was being done about it.

“I hope they find new staff that are wanting to genuinely help those in their care. Staff need better training and need empathy. I’m praying for wisdom for all who are involved in the process of changing and shifting these programs,” she said.

One source, who did not want to be named, said the general population does not realize that nursing staff can only do so much when they are short staffed, poorly managed and basically untrained.

“Many of the newer staff are not trained properly and those of us that have been around long enough to know the proper way get poor performance reviews and told they have unrealistic expectations,” they said.

This was acknowledged in the plan of correction after the state issued several violations and the unit lost its accreditation for over two months.

Access Issues Cited

Raymond E. Venegas II, a man who has a bipolar disorder, said he hopes that the mental health services in Racine will be greatly improved, but he too sees the need for more psychiatrists for people who need medication.

Eleven years ago I was let go from Wheaton Mental health as a patient because I missed appointments,” he said. “Last year I was ejected from Aurora because I also missed appointments. Having Bi-Polar two, when the depression sets in, they should take into account that we will be in such a low place that we isolate and the depression causes us to miss appointments. Although I wholly understand that it was my responsibility to make all appointments or call in when I couldn’t, sometimes the bipolar depression prevented me from doing so.”

Venegas asked both Wheaton and Aurora if they would reconsider if he signed an agreement or went on some type of probation because he had been without medication for 10 months. Both denied his request.

“Now I just found a doctor outside of Milwaukee, and after 10 months without medication, I am finally starting back on some meds,” he said. “The downside is I have to drive one hour to the appointments and one hour back. That’s 2 hours driving every week or two, to be treated. I really do hope that Ascension makes positive changes to genuinely help the mental health community.”

Ascension, Community Need To Share Burden

People need access and not excuses as to why they can’t get help. If Ascension was having an issue with hiring psychiatrists, why did they get rid of the temporary psychiatrists they had?

On the other hand, we need to do better at owning this problem as a community and at the legislative level. It is not solely the responsibility of one hospital system to shoulder all of the needs of this community, which is one of the reasons why Racine County’s SAIL program, a short-term crisis stabilization center for adults who are having a mental health crisis, is so important. But if we truly want to rely less on our jail system, we need to address people’s mental health needs in a more systematic way that is transparent to the community.

If Ascension hopes to truly help make Racine a great place to live, this would be the best place to start.

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.