Advocates say commissioner would improve mental health system

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(Host) Lawmakers and advocates are calling on the Douglas administration to name a high-level appointee to oversee the state’s struggling mental health system. By restoring the job to commissioner-status, they say that mental health issues will get the attention they deserve.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Over the past few years, Vermont’s state-run psychiatric hospital has lost its federal certification. A Department of Justice investigation uncovered civil rights violations at the institution. And plans to replace the hospital have been delayed.

Ken Libertoff directs the Vermont Association for Mental Health. He says the problems have been compounded by numerous changes in leadership over the past three and a half years.

(Libertoff) “The diffusion and confusion over authority and decision-making in mental health has victimized many good people and many good groups.”

(Dillon) The position of commissioner of Mental Health was eliminated in a broad re-organization of the Agency of Human Services.

Libertoff says a high-level appointee will have the political clout to make needed changes in the system.

(Libertoff) “In this state, a deputy commissioner is often not empowered in decision-making roles, in decision-making meetings, whether it has to do with policy or finances. That’s simply a reality.”

(Dillon) Since the reorganization of the Human Services Agency, there’s been a steady turnover in officials assigned to oversee mental health issues.

Chittenden Senator Jim Leddy voted against the re-organization because he said he believed mental health wouldn’t get enough attention in the restructured bureaucracy. Leddy now chairs the Mental Health Oversight Committee, which met in the Statehouse on Thursday. The state is now looking to hire a deputy commissioner to work on mental health. Leddy says the vacancy presents a good opportunity to re-examine the issue.

(Leddy) “The decision to convert mental health into a division in the Health Department was a mistake. And if we continue not to re-examine it, and if we go ahead and fill this position, that mistake will continue.”

(Dillon) Human Services Secretary Cynthia LaWare is the third appointee to hold the secretary’s job in two years. She says she’s open to the idea of elevating the mental health position, although she’s now reviewing applicants to be hired at the deputy commissioner level.

(LaWare) “I’m not absolutely convinced that just the change in name from deputy commissioner to commissioner is what we need. I’m more concerned about the leadership talent in the role.”

(Dillon) But Leddy and other members of the Mental Health Oversight Committee indicated they want the position restored to full commissioner status.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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