MONTPELIER — The number of mentally ill Vermonters being held in hospital emergency rooms for lack of a mental health bed is ‘‘heading in the wrong direction,’’ the state’s top mental health official told lawmakers Tuesday.
Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood told the Legislature’s Joint Mental Health Oversight Committee that instances in which mental health beds were not available and patients were held in hospital emergency rooms grew from 15 in June to 22 in July and 24 in August.
A shortage of places for people in mental health crisis to stay and get treatment has been a big problem for the state since flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 forced the closing of the 52-bed Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.
Since then, state officials have been scrambling to tool up a new system to include a new, 25-bed hospital in Berlin and smaller psychiatric units in regional hospitals around the state. But the smaller units are coming on line gradually. Six beds in Rutland are expected to be available by February, and the Berlin hospital’s opening is probably at least a year away.
‘‘We’ve had people sitting in emergency rooms for three or four days, in one case up to five days,’’ Flood told lawmakers. He later told reporters that the five-day delay in finding a mental health bed was due at least partly to ‘‘extenuating circumstances’’ — the patient had medical, as well as mental health, problems, and when a bed did open up, the hospital, which Flood refused to identify, said the patient was not ready to be discharged yet.
In addition to the new unit at the Rutland Regional Medical Center, smaller, fewer-than-10-bed facilities are also planned for Morrisville and possibly Waterbury.
Flood and some of the stakeholder group representatives testifying at Tuesday’s meeting said they were encouraged overall by the progress of changes in the system in the 54 weeks since Irene.
Wendy Beinner, head of the Vermont Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her group is very supportive of the state’s efforts, but ‘‘our immediate concern is the crisis we’re still very much in.’’ Many people voluntarily referring themselves for mental health services are not getting them quickly enough, Beinner said.
Representative Mary Hooper, a Montpelier Democrat and a member of the committee, said she shared a similar concern, adding that she worries that some people are not seeking mental health treatment because they hear about the difficulties with the state system.‘‘I think that’s where the danger is in the system,’’ she said.
The day began with a presentation from Robin Lunge, director of health reform for the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin, who talked about efforts to integrate mental health services into a revamped general health care system in the state.
Vermont is looking to go beyond the federal health overhaul passed in 2010, using the government-run exchange, or health insurance marketplace, envisioned in that law as a springboard to create a single-payer health care system in the state by 2017.