Mental health advocates warn of financial crisis

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(Host) Advocates warn that Vermont’s network of community mental health centers faces a worsening financial crisis. The advocates say that while needed attention has focused on conditions at the Vermont State Hospital, the rest of the system is also in trouble.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Ken Libertoff at the Vermont Association for Mental Health says there’s an unrecognized and ignored crisis developing in the state’s mental health network. He says low state reimbursements have caused lay-offs, high staff turnover and lengthy waiting lists for essential services.

Libertoff worries that as state government spends more money on the Vermont State Hospital – which lost its federal certification last summer – the network of community mental health centers will continue to decline.

(Libertoff) “From our point of view, postponing or waffling or not being able to make a decision on this issue, may frankly be the death knell for the vigor of our public mental health system.”

(Dillon) About 40,000 Vermonters get help through the community mental health centers or outpatient clinics. Todd Centybear, executive director of the Howard Center for Human Services in Chittenden County, warns that providers will either have to cut services drastically or face bankruptcy.

(Centybear) “It’s very clear from the business analysis that we have done that as early as late FY 2005 going out that we will see perhaps not only some programs failing but some agencies at risk as well. And we certainly need to deal with the crisis of the moment but we need to look beyond that.”

(Dillon) At Washington County Mental Health, Executive Director Paul Dupre also worries about cutbacks, layoffs and the inability of his organization to pay competitive salaries.

Vermont’s community-based mental health system is recognized as a national leader. But Dupre says the financial problems threaten the entire network. He says he doesn’t want to explain to the public a year from now how the community mental health system fell apart.

(Dupre) “When the State Hospital issue came up it made it much more urgent for me to start saying, We’ve got to figure out how to get this message across. We’re going to be sitting at the same table a year or two from now. And I as an executive director can’t look people in the face and say, I didn’t know this was starting to happen.”

(Dillon) The advocates say state reimbursements have not kept pace with cost of living increases and the rising cost of health insurance. They say about $10 million is needed statewide to get the system back to fiscal health.

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

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