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Mental health bill a step in the right direction

“We ultimately cannot let perfect get in the way of great.”

Rep. Nate Gustafson of Neenah made that comment in response to criticism during debate over a bill he co-authored to allow out-of-state mental health care providers with licenses in other states to offer telehealth services in Wisconsin.

The intent of the legislation is to address the lack of access to mental health professionals which is particularly felt in rural portions of the state. This lack of access can have tragic consequences among those who are in crisis who have nowhere to turn to for help.

The best solution would be to have more mental health professionals in all Wisconsin communities and at the same time have the funding in place to ensure there are not financial barriers to people receiving the services.

Just as access to routine basic physical health care services helps catch issues when they are smaller and more easily treatable without expensive interventions. Access to routine mental health services and treatments hopefully can prevent things from advancing into crisis- level which require far more extensive resources.

The bill, AB 541, which was passed in the Assembly last week does not solve the problem of lack of mental health services in the state. What it is, is a step in the right direction of providing a pathway to improve access to services.

The risk that comes along with letting providers licensed in other states from providing services in Wisconsin is that not all state licenses are created equal. This is a fact that opponents of professional licensing at the state level ignore in their rhetoric calling for automatic reciprocity.

As the saying goes, “Regulations are written in blood.” Professional licensing rules exist to protect consumers from being swindled or physically injured. The licensing, ideally, ensures a base level of knowledge and skills for those professions. While generally similar in professions from state to state, some states have a higher bar to clear. While other places may only care that their application check clears.

State licensing also provides a remedy addressing misconduct or violations that a provider may commit. The risk, however small, of allowing someone licensed out of state to provide telehealth services is that they may not even be aware of Wisconsin regulations and that this may limit the patient’s options if misconduct occurs.

Wisconsin regulators must be vigilant with out-of-state providers and ensure that they are meeting the same standards as those licensed in Wisconsin. At the same time, the state, through the specific industry boards who write most of the regulations, should be on the lookout and flag providers from states that are more lax than Wisconsin in ensuring positive patient outcomes.

The assembly passage of AB 541 is a positive step forward toward addressing a very real issue impacting rural Wisconsin.