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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

After Long Wait, Mental Health Hospital Ready For First Patients

Peter Hirschfeld
Visitors tour a spacious open air courtyard at the new, $29 million Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital.

Nearly three years after Tropical Storm Irene flooded Vermont’s only inpatient psychiatric hospital, state officials are finally ready to open its replacement. And they say the 25-bed facility in Berlin showcases the state’s new approach to mental health care.

At a ribbon cutting for the facility Tuesday, a cellist played inside the small and softy-lit chapel that is one of the first rooms visitors see when they enter through the main doors of the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. The music fit the serene mood evoked by this state-of-the-art treatment facility, where some of the state’s sickest mental health patients will soon receive care.

"We finally want to put our money where our mouths have been, and deliver the best mental health facility and the best mental health care system in America." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

Mental health officials say features like the chapel, library and greenhouse are here to foster an environment more conducive to recovery.

“We’ve got the courtyard, as well as the larger outdoor yard, water features, a labyrinth for people to walk on, if they want to walk and be in that meditative place themselves,” said Frank Reed, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

Since Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, administration officials, mental health advocates and lawmakers have been working to reconstruct a mental health system thrown into disarray by the closure of the 54-bed psychiatric facility in Waterbury. Gov. Peter Shumlin called the $29 million hospital an investment in the state’s treatment philosophy. The state’s share of the costs are $12.4 million – the Federal Emergency Management Agency covered $12.5 million, and insurance money from the flood paid $3.5 million.

“We finally want to put our money where our mouths have been, and deliver the best mental health facility and the best mental health care system in America,” Shumlin said.

The closure of the old hospital prompted a re-design of the mental health system in a way that favors community-based, lower-level treatment over acute inpatient care. By ramping up services available to people struggling with mental health issues before they turn severe, state officials say, Vermont will reduce demand for the higher-cost care being provided at places like the new hospital in Berlin.

Northfield Rep. Ann Donahue is a mental health advocate who has spent years advocating for a new state mental hospital. Impressive as the new facility is, Donahue says the system won’t function properly unless the community-based facilities are actually built. And she said much of the bed space and treatment capacity called for in the reform plan have yet to be constructed.

“Some of them are still in development, some of them are on budget hold. And we need to really enhance that aspect or we won’t reduce the need for inpatient care,” Donahue said.

Hospital emergency rooms have borne the brunt of the loss of inpatient capacity over the past three years. And acutely ill patients have been stuck for days at a time in emergency departments ill-equipped to serve their needs, all for lack of a more appropriate place to send them. Jill Olson, vice-president of policy and legislative affairs at the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, says it’s too early to know if the long awaited arrival of the 25-bed hospital will provide a sufficient relief valve for the pressure that’s built up in the system.

“What we’re going to be looking for is really no patient should wait for extended periods of time in an emergency department for an inpatient placement,” Olson said.

The new hospital, which will begin taking patients in as little a few days, will have an annual operating budget of about $19 million, nearly $11 million of which will be covered by the federal government.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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