After Irene, State Hospital Patients’ Future Grows Uncertain

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(Host) State officials are grappling with a plan to care for the psychiatric patients of the Vermont State Hospital who had to be evacuated after Tropical Storm Irene. Fifty-one patients were relocated to other hospitals during the emergency, and their future care is still in question, as VPR’s Patti Daniels reports.

(Daniels) During the Sunday storm, the first floor of the three story building was inundated with flood water, forcing staff and patients to relocate to the upper two floors. Christine Oliver is the state’s commissioner of mental health.

(Oliver) "By morning, the water had receded but power was off. The staff and patients were without power overnight. And so we started that process of really, where to evacuate patients to."

(Daniels) That first Monday after the storm, patients were given emergency placements around the state at facilities ranging from hospitals to treatment centers to the Springfield prison.

A permanent solution is months, if not years away. Speaking Tuesday on VPR’s Vermont Edition, Oliver said an interim plan is urgently needed.

(Oliver) "Those placements, I do not believe, can hold that long. Everybody has stepped to the plate, they are going above and beyond what we could have hoped what they could do. The system just cannot hold on like that. We are really stretched very, very thin."

(Daniels) The State Hospital was problematic long before Irene. For 10 years the state has tried to improve the hospital or agree on a plan to replace it, without success. Observers of the state’s mental health system point out that Irene closed the facility in one day, a goal that some have been working toward for a decade.

Commissioner Oliver has presented the outline of a permanent replacement for the Vermont State Hospital, but that doesn’t help the immediate crisis of caring for these dislocated patients.

One of the most viable options is among the least popular: rehab the undamaged top two floors of the State Hospital and move some patients and staff back in.

(Oliver) "We all hope we don’t have to move back into the State Hospital. Our plan was to get out of there as it was. It is – it is an option. I don’t have the luxury of throwing out options right now. So options are there and we’ll continue to look."

(Daniels) Oliver says 17 of the 51 evacuated patients have since been discharged according to their treatment plans. But she estimates that 24 individuals across the state have sought psychiatric care in the past few weeks, and they probably would have been admitted to Vermont State Hospital, were it still open.

For VPR News, I’m Patti Daniels.

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