Vt. lawmakers to hear from public on mental health 

Nearly 150 people packed a Statehouse hearing room Tuesday evening to offer their views on the future of Vermont's mental health system now that Tropical Storm Irene has forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

The views offered at the hearing were mixed. Some favored a centralized state hospital, while others supported a plan launched by Gov. Peter Shumlin to have smaller facilities in different parts of Vermont.

There appeared to be broad support for the stepped-up community-based services that Shumlin administration officials hope will reduce the need for the type of acute-care beds the state maintained in Waterbury.

Some testified on the need to resolve the ongoing crisis in the state's general purpose hospitals, where staff members say they've been trying to care for patients who formerly would have gone to Waterbury.

"I have witnessed a hospital floor I used to be proud to work on ... become an acute, chaotic, stressful environment that is not conducive to productive treatment for any patient," Christina Sclafani, a registered nurse at Burlington's Fletcher Allen Health Care hospital, told members of four legislative committees gathered for the joint hearing.

Fletcher Allen, like other hospitals around Vermont, has been under intense pressure since Tropical Storm Irene's flooding forced the evacuation of the Waterbury facility in late August to take patients that previously would have gone to Waterbury.

Sclafani joined Dr. Mark McGee, chief resident in psychiatry at Fletcher Allen, as well as many of the dozens who testified in urging the state to open a centralized hospital larger than what Shumlin has called for to take patients who formerly went to Waterbury.

Shumlin last month laid out a plan calling for a new, 16-bed acute-care facility to take the sickest patients in Berlin; a new, 14-bed unit at the private Brattleboro Retreat psychiatric hospital in southeastern Vermont; and six acute-care psychiatric beds at the Rutland Regional Medical Center. Those 36 beds would not wholly replace the 54 that were in Waterbury, but administration officials have said some of the patients at Waterbury were there only because there weren't enough less acute settings around the state, something the Shumlin plan aims to correct.

Several of those testifying at the hearing spoke of their own experiences as patients of the Vermont system or those in other states, many of them asking for more state support for "peer services," programs in which patients in recovery help those in crisis.

They and others testifying welcomed Shumlin's call for more community-based mental health services. But witnesses cautioned that community services should not be pitted against acute in-patient beds.

"Really it's a false dichotomy or trichotomy or whatever, because we're all part of the same continuum," said Becky Moore, a social worker and one of several state hospital staff members who previously worked in Waterbury, told the committees "People need all of these services and more at different times."

Family members of patients told their own stories of an hour-long ride to visit a son in Waterbury that had suddenly become a three-hour trip to Brattleboro.

Among those testifying in favor of both a strong, centralized state hospital and a strong system of community services were some who had seen Vermont's mental health system from more than one vantage point.

Fran Levine of Montpelier, a veteran nurse manager at the state hospital whose son is mentally ill, told the lawmakers, "This is not about my job. This is about people and services."

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