FEMA Money Comes Through For Mental Health System

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On the eve of the Legislative session, the Shumlin Administration says a big funding question has been settled.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says that federal funds and insurance payments will cover about 70 percent of the cost of a new state hospital and other improvements to the mental health system.

Led by a fast-shoveling Gov. Shumlin, officials celebrated with a ceremonial ground breaking at the new state hospital site in Berlin.

"Here’s to the best mental health system in America! Come on, start digging!" Shumlin cheered.

The old Waterbury state hospital was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene. The storm accomplished what previous administrations had failed to do: the floodwaters closed the antiquated facility that the federal government had previously refused to certify.

But the big question for the administration and the Legislature was how to pay for a new mental health system.

Shumlin said the answer came this week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I’m grateful to FEMA. And I quote the great philosopher Mick Jagger who said simply – and for fear that it might show up in a TV ad in the future, I won’t sing it: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need,”’ he said.

The pricetag for the new 25-bed Berlin facility, plus new beds in Brattleboro, Rutland and at a temporary facilities in Middlesex and Morrisville, is $42 million. FEMA and insurance payments will cover $30 million dollars.

"That means that Vermont taxpayers will be paying for this entire rebuilt delivery system between $12.5 and $15 million," according to the governor.

Mark Landry, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA, said he could not make a formal announcement on exactly how much the feds will provide. Only Congress can do that, Landry said. But he said officials were able to use the flexibility in the umbrella statute that covers FEMA to bring the maximum amount possible in federal public assistance grants to Vermont.

Landry noted that the FEMA law is named for its prime author, former Vermont Senator Robert Stafford.

"He had the vision. But little did he know that the state of Vermont was going to be the beneficiary," Landry said. "And it’s the flexibility of that document that we’ve bent – we’ve never gone outside the bounds of our authority but we have pushed the edge. And in pushing the edge we’ve been able to deliver the type of services that allow you to get your mental health system back in line and hopefully best support your citizens.

While Shumlin has criticized FEMA in the past, at the groundbreaking, the governor praised FEMA officials for their work.

"This is the break-through from my perspective. It really is Mark Landry and his current team," he said.

Shumlin says a new mental health system should eventually save Vermont taxpayers money because for 10 years, the federal government has refused to pay for care at the hospital. That has cost the state about $10 million a year.

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