Vt. lawmakers calls for 25-bed psych hospital 

A committee of the Vermont House voted Friday to build a 25-bed psychiatric hospital in central Vermont that would replace the state hospital made unusable by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.

The measure approved by the House Human Services Committee on a 9-1 vote adds nine beds to the proposal by Gov. Peter Shumlin to build a 16-bed hospital in Berlin.

Vermont, like most states, already has a hybrid mental health system, ranging from acute care beds on locked wards to group homes and other community placements to outpatient therapy. The committee agreed with the Shumlin administration that the emphasis needs to shift to less restrictive environments for the mentally ill where possible.

The system was thrown into upheaval Aug. 28, when Irene caused the Winooski River to overflow its banks and flood the Waterbury state complex that included the hospital.

A succession of administrations has wanted to replace the facility first built in the 1890s. Shumlin has sought to paint the closing of the hospital by Irene as an opportunity to move the state into a new era on mental health, and lawmakers largely agree.

"It is the intent of the general assembly to strengthen Vermont's existing mental health care system by offering a continuum of community and peer services, as well as a range of acute in-patient beds throughout the state," says the statement of purpose of the bill drafted by the committee.

In addition to the 16-bed hospital in Berlin, which borders the capital, Montpelier, the governor's plan called for 14 acute care beds at the Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital in southeastern Vermont, and six new beds for the mentally ill at the Rutland Regional Medical Center, in the south-central part of the state.

Shumlin's plan, which he unveiled last month, also called for increased use of community placements for the mentally ill.

The main difference between the governor's plan and that passed by lawmakers was that the committee wants a 25-bed facility, rather than a 16-bed one, in central Vermont.

A Shumlin spokeswoman did not immediately return a call Friday seeking comment on the committee's action. But at a news conference earlier this week, Shumlin said he wanted to limit the new central Vermont facility to 16 beds.

Shumlin and other administration officials say that under federal rules, if the state wants 60 percent cost reimbursement from Medicaid for care of mentally ill patients, it can't have a psychiatric hospital larger than 16 beds that is not attached to a general hospital.

A larger hospital would leave the state picking up all the costs, he said.

"All I'm saying is, there's plenty of legislators walking around with la-la-land plans," Shumlin said at his news conference Wednesday. "I'm not planning to join 'em."

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