from Washington Park Beat November-December 2007

Advocacy at Work: A Conversation with Peter Hoeffel

By Patricia Obletz

Peter Hoeffel has two medical conditions: diabetes and depression. Guess which one has excellent insurance coverage. Lucky for his bank account, both medical conditions are stabilized. His passion to help others led him to Disability Rights Wisconsin in 2003.

Peter said, “DRW is a nonprofit member of a national system of federally mandated independent Protection and Advocacy agencies for the rights of people with disabilities.

“Attorneys and advocacy specialists, such as myself, work to empower people with disabilities and their families to ensure that their rights are protected and advocated for, and that their quality of life is as good as possible. DRW concentrates on schools and civil rights, and community and institutions. I work in the latter.

“We guide people through the system to get the best services for their particular needs, and to help them define and achieve their goals. We make sure that people who are court-ordered to be in a facility get the right care there. And if they want to be discharged, we help them overcome barriers such as a family member, or there’s no housing available or case managers want them in group homes. But if their goal is to have their own apartment, we’ll work with them to attain it, even if we think it’s not a good idea - everyone has the right to make bad decisions. Even if it means going to court. That’s why we have attorneys. We’ve sued employers as well as the Milwaukee public school system for its failure to follow the law in providing appropriate education to children with disabilities. The MPS suit has been on the books for several years and now looks like it will be successful.

“The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex is another institution in need of physical and strategic redesign. It’s understaffed, under funded and in need of state of the art treatment services. Also necessary is to eliminate disparate pharmaceutical formularies. The Behavioral Health Division’s formulary is different from the County jail’s, which is different from the house of corrections’. Changing medications mid-stream creates further difficulties for people. This serious problem could be fixed at next to no cost, yet people continue to needlessly suffer.

“On a positive note, peer support specialists are starting to be employed throughout the behavioral health system. In Milwaukee, a number of people who are in recovery from a mental illness who have been through the mental health system have been certified to work in institutions to safeguard patient rights and serve as peer support. I’d like to see a lot more of peers employed and be well paid. Currently, I believe Peer Support Specialists receive only $10 an hour, but most are experts and should be paid as such.

Mental illnesses are common and treatable

“The mental health stigma that everyone faces deters too many people from speaking out about their own experiences, which peer specialists do. The reality is that mental illnesses are common and treatable. The majority of the professional world knows this, but we’re not there socially or systems-wise to address this truth appropriately. People successful in many spheres of life remain afraid to admit to having a mental illness.

“Stigma is perpetuated by the media and by people who cannot afford quality services needed to achieve recovery. This heartbreaking fact is unacceptable. Statistics show that prevention and early intervention are the most cost effective, and make the road to recovery much easier. Society’s inability to provide decent mental health care for children right from the beginning leads to much greater social problems later in life. Studies show that 40 to 60 percent of imprisoned people have a mental illness. Often, youth in Milwaukee low-income families don’t receive mental health services until they enter the justice system. Not only is this grossly inhumane, the monetary costs of these services are almost three times that of those provided in the community. To address these problems, the Youth Mental Health Connection was organized in 2003. For information on available youth mental health services, please call 414–271–2565.

“Because the symptoms of mental illnesses have been misconstrued as criminal behavior, the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force has been working with police to sensitize them to approach children and adults exhibiting these symptoms as having an illness. Through the creation of the Milwaukee Crisis Intervention Team program, more than 180 officers have received CIT training. This is a great example of positive change.

“Also positive is the 24-hour crisis resource center in the works that will not only help individuals avoid being arrested, it will save emergency room costs, and give individuals a place to stay until they’re linked to necessary services. Aurora is the one hospital that has been most helpful in contributing to this center. The hope is that every hospital will contribute to mental health care with beds, outpatient services and financial help to service centers.

“Wisconsin prides itself on being progressive, yet it is one of only a handful of states that still doesn’t have parity in its mental health insurance coverage. This is discriminatory, inhumane and, from a fiscal point of view, it’s irresponsible. And it doesn’t look like Wisconsin will pass a budget that includes mental health parity this year.

Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s New Orleans
“I think that Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s New Orleans. We’re the eighth poorest city in the nation. We have racism and poverty at alarming rates. Many more people live in poverty in Milwaukee than in the rest of the state and they do not have access to quality healthcare, especially for mental health. Without adequate resources and support, that road to recovery looks very long.

“Unacceptable also is the lack of affordable, safe housing that a series of articles in the Journal Sentinel pointed out. These articles helped to jumpstart political action to resolve this problem. But, like most media, the paper didn’t balance that series with stories of people who live successful lives, thereby decreasing stigma.

“The Milwaukee Housing Trust Fund Coalition continues to investigate areas in which to create housing, but politics driven by NIMBY’ism, “Not in My Backyard,” continues to block these efforts. Statistics show that people with mental illnesses are more often victims of crime than perpetrators of it. Yet stigma remains so ingrown and widespread that most people accept the media image of people with mental illnesses and fight any attempt to create housing for them. The truth of course is that people with these conditions are their neighbors, attorneys, teachers, doctors.

“Last summer, it looked like more affordable housing options would become available after the city budgeted $2 million for the Housing Trust Fund. This September, that figure dropped to $400,000.

“Until late September, the county budget for community mental health services was cut by $750,000. Advocacy restored this funding through the efforts of Make It Work Milwaukee, a new coalition dedicated to strengthening the county through better health and human services. This cross-disability, aging, youth and families coalition grew from concerns that a strong coordinated effort was needed to advocate for health and human services in Milwaukee County, and for the people who rely on these essential services.

“More money is needed for community mental health services, but it’s encouraging that both the mayor and county executive have agreed to create a joint Commission on Supportive Housing; both have proposed funding for its operation. These efforts are part of the solution to establish more safe, affordable housing options for people with mental illnesses.

“Advocacy works. If you’d like to help bring Milwaukee’s community mental health services into the 21st Century, please call me at 414–773–4646.”

Last edited by Patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on February 03, 2016

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