PENSIONS ARE THE BEST BET FOR WISCONSIN MENTAL HEALTH WORKERS

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This month is Mental Health Month and I wanted to take some time to thank my fellow mental health workers throughout Wisconsin for their service. I feel truly honored and fortunate to work closely with a dedicated group of public employees across many disciplines, including nursing, social work, psychiatry, psychology, and occupational therapy.

Currently, I am a psychiatrist at the Mendota Mental Health Institute (MMHI) in Madison and at the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI) in Waupun. At both locations, I work as part of a team to treat mentally ill patients, and in many cases, prepare them for a successful transition to the community after they have served their sentences.

It is gratifying to provide excellent mental health care to my patients and to help them develop the skills and insight necessary for successful reintegration into our communities. Doing so not only helps the individual become a productive member of society, but it helps our society at large by reducing recidivism and enhancing safety in our communities.

Many public employees make less money than their civilian counterparts, but for public employees, we have the promise of a secure retirement through our defined benefit public pension provided by the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS). The pension public employees receive allows us to retire with dignity and security. The average annual pension benefit here in Wisconsin is $23,430 – a modest amount that helps us give back to our communities and to support our families.

As I’ve been watching the news lately, I’ve noticed that public pension funds are being attacked nationwide, which is truly a troubling trend. In Michigan, lawmakers are talking about closing their school employee pension fund and moving newly hired employees into a defined contribution, 401(k)-style plan. In South Carolina, one lawmaker pushed to close their pension system off to new hires. Moves like these are incredibly irresponsible and would hurt public employees and the fiscal stability of the state.

401(k)s have become the norm across the country for private sector employees, but unfortunately, they’re one of the reasons we have a retirement crisis in the country. 401(k) plans only have a median account balance of $18,000 nationwide, which is far from what will be required to retire with dignity. 401(k)s are also subject to the whims of the market and if there’s another crash like in 2008, workers could lose much of their hard-earned savings. On top of that, 401(k)s have much higher fees, which puts workers’ money into the pockets of wealthy Wall Street executives.

On the other hand, there are pensions. Here in Wisconsin, WRS is funded at 100% and is a model for pension funds across the country. Pensions are a safe and reliable retirement plan for all public employees because they don’t put all of the risk on the individual. Pensions allow for better recruitment and retention for state agencies and are well-regulated, professionally managed, and have lower fees. Pensions are clearly the better choice for workers both in the public and private sectors.

Yet politicians from across the country have been shortchanging pension accounts, attempting to close pension funds. Right here in Wisconsin, State Senator Strobel is attempting to change WRS. In his proposed bill, he’s trying to raise the retirement age and change the way pension benefits are calculated. WRS is projected to be fully funded long into the future and the changes Strobel is proposing aren’t necessary to keep the pension fund healthy and strong.

I urge the legislature to reject this type of legislation. It will only hurt our hard-working public employees – including Wisconsin’s dedicated mental health workers.