- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin lawmakers moved closer Thursday to passing a bipartisan package of legislation to help people cope with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia after the Legislature’s budget committee signed off on the last half of the proposals.

The Joint Finance Committee approved five bills that dedicate more money toward government efforts to support Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers, setting the stage for a full vote in the Assembly.

The measures lay out $50,000 for virtual dementia tours, in which participants wear special goggles and headphones to experience the effects of dementia; $50,000 in additional funding for Alzheimer’s research at UW-Madison; and $1 million in additional money for the state’s Alzheimer’s family and caregiver support program. The remaining two bills would devote $1.37 million to cover four dementia care specialists to serve in rural counties and boost grants for training local dementia crisis teams in the next fiscal year.

The only bill that didn’t pass the committee unanimously was the UW-Madison research measure. Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Wauwatosa Republican, cast the lone vote against it, saying she couldn’t bring herself to give more money to an institution that uses tissue from aborted fetuses in its research.

The bills are part of a 10-proposal package Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ mental health task force has proposed. The Assembly’s mental health committee approved the five other bills on Tuesday.

Those proposals would create a state dementia specialist certification program and request the state Supreme Court to require ongoing education for attorneys in identifying vulnerable adults who could be financially exploited and judges in estate and trust laws.

The bills also would require the state to restrict driving privileges of anyone who is the subject of a Silver Alert if the public’s safety is at risk. According to the state Department of Transportation, 74 Silver Alerts, whose subjects often suffer from dementia, were issued last year.

The state also would have to prepare a report on where dementia sufferers are placed in crisis situations, and include plans for counties to create dementia crisis units. What’s more, community-based residential facilities would have to get signed acknowledgement from residents with degenerative brain disorders or their legal representatives before administering psychotropic medication.

The AARP and the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin support all the bills. Rob Gundermann, the alliance’s public policy director, said he’s especially excited about more money for caregivers, which would help keep people in their homes, as well as certification for dementia specialists and requiring residential facilities to warn residents about their medication’s side effects.

“If all these bills go through, we will be ecstatic,” he said.

The psychotropic medication bill is the only measure that has drawn any organized opposition. Four groups - Leading Age Wisconsin, Residential Services Association of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Assisted Living Association and the Wisconsin Health Care Association - have registered against it. Unlike nursing homes, residential facilities offer limited medical care and residents should have discussions about their drugs with their doctors, said Brian Purtell, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living Division within the health care association.

“Fundamentally, it’s really that they’re inserting (residential facilities) into a dialogue that should be occurring between the patient and physicians,” Purtell said. “The bill is asking (residential facilities) to assume a responsibility that is not theirs.”

Gundermann countered that residents and guardians need all the information they can get - especially given the lack of medical care and signed acknowledgements create a paper trail.

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the Assembly will vote on the bills before the end of the month.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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