Advocates Say Mental Health Care System Still Faces Crisis

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(Host) Last winter, Vermont community mental health providers warned of disastrous cuts in services without a five percent increase in pay for mental health workers. The state budget passed by the Legislature included an increase of under three percent. Mental health advocates say that will only buy time to delay an impending crisis in the state’s community mental health care system.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Last February community mental health workers rallied in front of the state house and called on the governor and the Legislature to fund pay increases for them that were comparable to other state workers. They warned of a catastrophic collapse of Vermont’s community mental health system. Ultimately legislators added some money in the budget to pay for salary increases, but only a little over half of what workers were asking for.

(Libertoff) “A nearly three percent increase has resulted in a variety of more slow, but a steady erosion of service capacity, but not one’ that’s as easily noticeable or identifiable.”

(Zind) Ken Libertoff is executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health. Libertoff says a crisis is still looming in the system.

(Libertoff) “The summary is that we did not see the kind of catastrophic cuts that we were worried about. That decision is delayed and we hope that we will have a spirited debate come the winter of this year over the future of our community mental health system.”

(Zind) Libertoff says high turnover and difficulty filling positions are still serious problems. He says the low salaries for mental health workers combined with cuts in federal funding for programs means there are people on waiting lists for treatment. It’s a situation he calls unacceptable and it comes at a time when Libertoff says new demands are being placed on the community mental health system.

(Libertoff) “The latest development this year is the recognition that we have a tremendous need to bring treatment and recovery services to people with mental health and substance abuse problems in our corrections system.”

(Zind) Libertoff says he hopes the next legislature will approve a four percent increase for mental health workers.

Representative Tom Koch chaired the House Committee on Health and Welfare during the last session. Koch says legislators are waiting to see the recommendations of a study of Vermont’s mental health care system to see if its being run as efficiently as possible.

(Koch) “If the answer is no, then let’s make necessary changes, if the answer is yes then I think we should be satisfied that what the public is spending on these services is money well spent.”

(Zind) Koch says the study should be completed in November.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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