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Vt. House approves redesign for mental health

MONTPELIER - The Vermont House approved a sweeping overhaul of the state’s mental health system yesterday, a move set in motion when Tropical Storm Irene flooded the government complex in Waterbury that included the Vermont State Hospital.

The measure was approved 124 to 3 after key sponsors said it would alleviate the crisis created when the Waterbury facility closed and other hospitals not equipped or staffed to do so were forced to try to care for the most acutely mentally ill Vermonters. Sponsors said the bill will help build a better system of care in the long run.

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The measure’s aim is “to take the pressure off our existing system right now and to make sure that Vermonters afflicted with mental health issues get the care they need, close to home and when they need it,’’ said Representative Ann Pugh, Democrat of South Burlington, chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee, which drafted the bill.

Others marveled at the speed with which the state had been forced to face the problems in its mental health system after more than a decade of talking about doing something.

“We’ve done more in the past five months . . . than we’ve done in the past eight years,’’ said Representative Thomas Koch, Republican of Barre Town.

The 54-bed Waterbury hospital, first built in the 1890s, had been widely viewed as antiquated and in need of replacement for more than a decade. In 2003, it was decertified by the federal government and lost federal funding after two patient suicides blamed on old physical features like coat hooks in patient rooms, as well as staff failings.

The bill, which is up for final House approval today before moving to the Senate, calls for the construction of a new 25-bed psychiatric hospital in central Vermont; 14 beds to be added to the Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital in southeastern Vermont; six at the Rutland Regional Medical Center in southwestern Vermont; and greater use of smaller facilities for people with less severe mental illness.

‘We’ve done more in the past five months . . . than we’ve done in the past eight years.’

Rep. Thomas Koch Republican of Barre Town
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It calls for $20 million a year in new spending on community-based housing and services. Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood said this week the money will come mainly from the fact that, with patients moved out of the decertified Waterbury hospital, an influx of federal funds has suddenly become available.

Other costs are still undetermined, lawmakers said. The expanded psychiatric facilities in Brattleboro and Rutland are expected to cost about $10 million, but lawmakers said Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid for the flooding in late August is expected to cover about 90 percent of that cost.

One sticking point is the number of beds to be included at the new hospital, which is planned for the town of Berlin.

Governor Peter Shumlin’s administration is calling for 16 beds there rather than 25, saying that under current federal rules, the larger, stand-alone psychiatric hospital probably will not be eligible for the federal Medicaid matching funds the Waterbury facility had also lost.

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