Report highlights Vermont State Hospital problems

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(Host) A new report highlights continuing problems at the Vermont State Hospital.

The document says patients have assaulted employees seven times recently, with three of the injuries resulting in broken bones.

The Douglas Administration wants to replace the hospital. But legislative leaders said today they’re not satisfied with the progress to date.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Every year, the state reports to the Legislature on a law that allows involuntary medication.

In certain circumstances, the state can get a court order to medicate people so they won’t harm themselves or others.

This year’s report to lawmakers contains a startling statistic.

In one recent eight-day period, patients assaulted hospital staff seven times. Five of the employees required medical care. And three of the five had fractures or broken bones.

(Donahue) “If that isn’t a red flag for crisis, I don’t know what more you need.”

(Dillon) Northfield Representative Anne Donahue is a longtime advocate on mental health issues. She says the report highlights the severity of the problems at the hospital. The hospital has lost its certification and a recent Department of Justice report pointed to continuing issues with patient care.

(Donahue) “Three people with broken bones – If that’s the level of what’s happening at the state hospital. And I think the Department of Justice report articulated some of the problems and some of the overly slow movement. That’s the kind of degree of safety risk that we’re talking about.”

(Dillon) Donahue is a Republican and has worked on mental health issues for years. So she was a little surprised when Democratic legislative leaders held a news conference to announce that they’re taking a more active role in planning for a new state hospital.

Senate President Peter Shumlin said the current plan to replace the hospital with a $100 million facility in Burlington is unaffordable and unworkable.

(Shumlin) “We’re concerned about the lack of leadership. We’re concerned about the lack of direction. And we feel that the Legislature has to help and take charge and offer leadership where leadership has been lacking.”

(Dillon) Shumlin wants to use the $1 million that is now set aside for hospital planning to explore other options for caring for the mentally ill.

(Shumlin) “There is no unified plan that you’re going to be able to sell Vermonters on, that’s in the best interests of patients, and the best interests of Vermont taxpayers. It’s up to us to come up with a plan that will work.”

(Dillon) Michael Hartman is the deputy commissioner for mental health. He wrote the report that documented the injuries to state hospital staff. Hartman says the current state hospital building is inadequate.

And he says the state has to recognize that mentally ill people deserve to be cared for not in isolation, but as part of a traditional hospital setting. The plan now calls for the new facility to be associated with Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

(Hartman) “And part of what we felt we were hearing as we were moving to this plan, is that that needed to change: that those folks who already have many compromises of their health, mental health and physical health, and are very much usually in a situation of poverty, that we needed to take this opportunity to put them in the best level of care.”

(Dillon) Meanwhile, Governor Jim Douglas’ spokesmen are accusing lawmakers of being hypocritical because the Legislature set up the process for building a new hospital.

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

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