Lawmakers argue for Mental Health Commissioner

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(Host) Lawmakers and advocates say that a high-level position is needed to oversee mental health issues.

They believe that by restoring the job to commissioner-status, mental health will get the attention it deserves.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

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

Advocates and some lawmakers now complained about a lack of leadership and leadership turnover on mental health issues. The state has struggled to regain certification for the Vermont State Hospital, and efforts to build a new hospital have lagged.

Ken Libertoff directs the Vermont Association for Mental Health, an advocacy group.

(Libertoff) “From our vantage point this is a system, part of our health care system that in the last three years has lacked leadership capacity, a knowledge base and frankly empowerment to be at the table when important decisions are being made. We’re not going to solve the puzzle of replacing the state hospital nor are we going to solve the problem of maintaining our community system unless we have an empowered mental health commissioner.”

(Dillon) The legislature’s Mental Health Oversight Committee has unanimously backed restoring the position to full-time commissioner status.

And Representative Anne Pugh, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, also supports the legislation. She says one of five Vermonters deal with mental illness, and that the system needs more attention.

(Pugh) “People who have been working inside the system on a daily basis believe that having someone in charge and clearly focused on it, who’s attention is not by the nature of the job in other directions as well, that that will help put the needed focus.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas says it’s not the title that matters, but whether the job gets done. He says mental health issues languished in the years when the state had a mental health commissioner.

(Douglas) “There’s seems to be quite a lot of neglect even when there was a commissioner. And that’s why I really don’t think it makes a whole lot of difference what the title is.”

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration has told key lawmakers it would support the new position, with a caveat.

Administration officials don’t want the Legislature to once again try a wholesale reorganization of the entire Human Services Agency.

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

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