February 10th, 2018

Mental health, harassment among Vermont’s priorities

Mental health, harassment among Vermont's prioritiesVermont’s House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle-Chittenden) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/Prg-Chittenden) want to collaborate with Governor Phil Scott this year on legislation for education, clean waterways, a $15 minimum wage, better mental healthcare and stronger sexual harassment policies and procedures.

In the wake of rampant opioid addiction and the #MeToo movement, the two relevant issues are mental health and sexual harassment.

Ashe and Johnson are in favor of legislation that not only addresses the high cost of prescription drugs but also limits prescription pain killers.

Johnson said the opioid epidemic may account for the rise in mental health issues.

Ashe noted that those suffering with a mental crisis often find themselves in the back of a police cruiser instead of receiving medical care.

“It is very clear to all observers that we need additional bed space at different stages of the mental health continuum,” Ashe said in a December 15 press conference accompanied by Johnson, “and we hope that the administration will include dollars directly in their Capitol bill proposal.”

Vermont is no stranger to mental health cases.

Jody Herring, convicted in 2015 of killing three relatives and a social worker, was released early (following a psychotic break) from a 90-day treatment at Rutland Regional Medical Center shortly before the incident.

In 2016, Steven Bourgoin killed five teenagers going the wrong way on I-89. Marijuana, high levels of fentanyl and a type of benzodiazepine that, when mixed with fentanyl, could be fatal were found in his bloodstream.

Facing personal strife, unpaid bills, possible eviction and suspected PTSD, he had reportedly been in and out of the emergency room the morning of the accident.

Johnson pinpointed a big hurdle in the mental health system. Approximately half of the beds issued are forensic. So, a judge might order a hospital stay for someone who may not be competent to stand trial. Patients who occupy space for extended periods shrink the supply for those who need more immediate care.

“We need to prioritize where our resources go,” she said. “But this will be a multi-year process of piecing together a long-term solution.”

Johnson noted that any increased services would have to be added to the overall budget and, of course, those services would cost more money.

When it comes to sexual harassment, both Johnson and Ashe said there hasn’t been much direction coming from Washington.

Sexual misconduct cases like that of U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) have highlighted this problem in the political arena.

Vermont has also had its share of allegations. Former Senator Norm McAllister (R-Alburgh-Franklin) was convicted of exchanging money for sex but acquitted of sexual assault this past summer.

Legislative discussion on this subject has centered on inappropriate behavior and the structure in place for a complainant to come forward. The core of the problem, however, is disclosure. Who should know and how much should they know without a breach of privacy?

The existing harassment panels govern who has access to information and how that information is disseminated. Johnson explained that part of the problem with sexual harassment claims is a lack of recourse.

In government, there is no firing, demotion or docked pay for misconduct as there is in the private sector. Elected officials must be voted out of office.

“Saying ‘zero tolerance’ isn’t enough,” Johnson said. “[Politicians] can be sanctioned in some ways, but legally there isn’t a forum to handle this. We’re working to shift the culture.”

Others, like Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham County), the chair of the Senate Sexual Harassment Panel, noted that this problem is not a new.

“I thought Anita Hill was a watershed moment,” she said, referring to the sexual harassment hearings against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. “Even if it [doesn’t continue] on the national stage, I’m determined to keep shining a light on it here. So much of this is about how we conduct ourselves in the workplace.”

Vermont legislators are hoping that changes can be made before the mid-term elections later this year.

By Eileen Weber

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