United Health Foundation Commits $2.5 Million to Establish Behavioral Health Crisis Team in Children’s Wisconsin Emergency Department

May 27, 2020
  • New crisis response team will help meet a growing need for pediatric behavioral health services

The United Health Foundation has awarded Children’s Wisconsin a three-year, $2.5 million grant to establish a crisis response team in the emergency department (ED) available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for children with mental and behavioral health needs. This will be the first urgent mental health system of care dedicated solely to pediatric patients in southeast Wisconsin.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals had experienced an increase in visits by children for mental health emergencies, as documented by a recent scientific journal article published in Pediatrics. The grant partnership will help address this growing need and provide a more seamless continuum of care.

“It is troubling to know pediatric behavioral health needs are increasing nationwide. But it is extremely heartening to know that the United Health Foundation is funding programs that will help to address these needs,” said Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. “Support for excellent health care institutions like Children’s Wisconsin will help to provide even better care to Wisconsin children and their families. For this, I am grateful. We all benefit.”

Data published in Pediatrics quantifies the growing behavioral health care needs among children. The authors report that although the total number of pediatric ED visits remained stable, visits among children for all mental health disorders have increased 60% during the timeframe of 2007 to 2016. The increases are even more significant for deliberate self-harm, which has risen 329%, and substance abuse, which has risen 159%. 

“The United Health Foundation recognizes the need for continued innovation and improvements in behavioral health services for people of all ages,” said Ellen Sexton, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Wisconsin. “This partnership will allow one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the country to expand and enhance mental health services and access for children. At this unprecedented time in history, our hope is the program becomes a model that can be replicated in locations across the country.”

While the grant partnership was initiated prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is a timely partnership during the pandemic. Behavioral health professionals estimate that during a time of unprecedented uncertainty and fear, mental health issues and substance use disorders are likely exacerbated and may lead to new issues. To date, UnitedHealth Group has committed more than $75 million to fight COVID-19 and support impacted communities.

 “This generous gift from the United Health Foundation allows us to implement a critical piece of our plan to improve access to mental and behavioral health services for Wisconsin kids,” said Peggy Troy, president and CEO of Children’s Wisconsin. “We recognize that we must do more to support the mental and behavioral health needs of our kids. While the ultimate goal is to identify and provide resources before a crisis occurs, improving services in our emergency department is a step we need to take right now.”

Last November, Children’s announced a five-year plan to help address the growing mental and behavioral health crisis facing Wisconsin kids. The plan includes doubling the number of mental and behavioral health providers the system employs, helping detect mental and behavioral health needs sooner, improving access to services, and reducing the stigma around mental illness.

The United Health Foundation’s grant will help meet a $15 million challenge announced by Children’s in January.

The establishment of a crisis response team addresses a critical need. Currently, families must either go to the Milwaukee County Psychiatric Crisis Service, a local ED, or wait for an outpatient appointment. Children’s estimates the new team will support 800 children a year. The mental and behavioral health crisis response team will consist of a Medical College of Wisconsin pediatric psychiatrist, three mental and behavioral health social workers and a supervisor, and a mental and behavioral health navigator who will help patients with two of the largest challenges they experience – access to care and care transitions. It will be embedded in the Children’s Wisconsin ED to make mental and behavioral health consultations, referrals and follow-up as seamless as possible. The end goal is to provide a continuum of care for mental health needs just as seamlessly as Children’s provides for physical needs.

Children’s currently sees an average of 800 mental and behavioral health patients in its ED, with 1 out of 10 visits a repeat encounter. Children’s will measure the outcomes of the new model of care to determine if it helps reduce the number of repeat encounters.

The crisis response team will provide psychosocial assessments and immediate crisis stabilization; facilitate transfers for inpatient care if needed; help families with safety planning and overcoming barriers to aftercare; and serve as a liaison with law enforcement, community organizations and mental health providers in the community.

“We want to provide better and more supportive care for the kids and families managing a mental or behavioral health need,” said Amy Herbst, vice president for mental and behavioral health at Children’s. “That includes not only improving the care provided in the ED, but improving access to care after that visit. The United Health Foundation’s grant will allow us to do both.”

About the United Health Foundation

Through collaboration with community partners, grants and outreach efforts, the United Health Foundation works to improve our health system, build a diverse and dynamic health workforce and enhance the well-being of local communities. The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. To date, the United Health Foundation has committed more than $500 million to programs and communities around the world. We invite you to learn more at

About Children’s Wisconsin

Children’s Wisconsin is the state’s only independent health care system dedicated solely to the health and well-being of children. Beyond its two hospital locations, Children’s provides primary care, specialty care, urgent care, emergency care, community health services, foster and adoption services, child and family counseling, child advocacy services and family resource centers.