November 1st, 2011

Storm forces evacuation

On August 28, Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the state of Vermont, leaving behind impassable roads, toppled buildings, broken bridges and – most significantly – a flooded state hospital. Established in 1891, Vermont State Hospital (VSH) has been at the center of heated discussions regarding its future. Mother Nature may have the last word in determining the fate of this antiquated facility.

Prior to the late summer storm, Vermont’s Department of Mental Health had debated options for best serving the needs of those with mental health issues, according to Mental Health Commissioner Christine Oliver. “We are still on that path, but in the short term, we need an alternative. We are focusing on now.”

Rising floodwaters at the hospital forced the evacuation of all its patients. “Of 51, 17 remain in the facility [as of Sept. 23],” says Oliver. “But we’ve taken on more patients through the system in the meantime. These patients would likely have been admitted to VSH.” Sixteen patients were transferred to the Brattleboro Retreat; seven were moved to a correctional facility in Springfield; seven others were admitted to Fletcher Allen Medical Center in Burlington; eight were sent to Second Spring in Williamston and other mental health facilities throughout the state accepted smaller numbers of patients, she notes.

While patients have been displaced, staff has also undergone some drastic changes. “It’s been a nightmare for them. We are taking them in vans to the sites. Brattleboro is two-and-a-half hours away, Springfield, an hour-and-a-half. They are quite geographically dispersed,” says Oliver. “We are putting them up in hotels and they are working long hours and are not familiar with these facilities. But this is invaluable to the continuity of care to patients. Staff has really stepped up to the plate.”

Jill M. Olson, vice president of policy and legislative affairs for the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, says that the devastation at VSH means the loss of an “essential facility.” She says, “What’s happened is that we’ve lost a high-level acuity from the system,” adding that no alternative to the state hospital currently exists. She applauds the Brattleboro Retreat for opening 15 beds to VSH patients, but says that adding more without making significant changes is not feasible.

While an alternative plan for the state hospital inpatients had to be developed under crisis conditions, Olson emphasizes that a more pressing problem is complicating the situation. “It’s about people who keep coming into the system,” she says. “We have about 300 admissions to the state hospital every year. November and December are busy months. There is not enough capacity to take care of them.” She says that these patients will ultimately become stuck in emergency rooms, “the worst place for someone in crisis to be.”

Olson commends Commissioner Oliver for her efforts in this situation and is collaborating with her to determine a next step. Both women testified at the Mental Health Oversight Committee meeting, which took place on October 11. Linda Corey from Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, Wendy Beinner, director, NAMI VT and Floyd Nease, executive director, Vermont Association for Mental Health also provided input on the future of the state hospital. No additional information regarding the meeting and its findings was available at the time of publication.

Oliver says, “Our timeline is yesterday. We are looking at safe alternatives. Our prior plans are still in the picture, although we are not moving as quickly as we’d like.” She further explains that the situation remains “fluid” and that DMH continues its exploration process. “We’re in crisis mode. People are stretching themselves. We don’t want to overburden them any more than we already have.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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