Think tank: Vt State Hospital should not be replaced

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(Host) A new report by a conservative think tank says the state should not spend up to $100 million to replace the Vermont State Hospital.

Instead, the Ethan Allen Institute calls for treating mentally ill people in smaller, community-based facilities.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The theme of the report is community, not confinement.

Bethany Knight researched the issue for the Ethan Allen Institute. Knight used to work for the state’s nursing homes, and was a member of the Public Oversight Committee that sets hospital budgets.

Knight says mentally ill people should not be removed from society and placed in an institution. Instead, she says they must be cared for close to home.

(Knight) It’s time now for Vermont to embrace an affordable model of small recovery residences focused on healing.

(Host) The federal government de-certified the state hospital four years ago, which means Vermont no longer gets Medicaid money to pay for patient care.

The U.S. Justice Department was also highly critical of the hospital’s use of physical restraints to control patients.

The state is now looking at several options, including a new 50-bed unit at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

Knight says the state can’t afford the projected $100 million price tag for the new institution. Her message to the Legislature is simple:

(Knight) Don’t get caught up in the issue of hospitalization. And do not build a facility. Do not build a facility, because we will have to fill the facility. There’s no need for another institution in Vermont. Institutional care is the least desirable.

(Dillon) Knight and Ethan Allen Institute Director John McClaughry criticized the role of the Vermont state employees union in the hospital debate.

The union wants a new institution that will maintain the current workforce. McClaughry says the union is putting its interests ahead of patients.

(McClaughry) The Vermont state employees union finds it necessary to protect the convenience, comforts and paychecks of their constituency.

(Dillon) Connor Casey is the union’s legislative coordinator. He says the Ethan Allen Institute want to privatize mental health care. But Casey says that means more people would end up on the streets, in prisons, or in homeless shelters.

(Casey) You need a safety net in the state. And by going with their plan, we’d become the first state in the country with a completely privatized health care system. It would eliminate all the transparency, all the accountability that we have in the state right now.

(Dillon) The Ethan Allen Institute report follows recommendations by legislative consultants, who also called for mentally ill people to be cared for at community hospitals.

But the legislature’s consultants said lawmakers should also consider a small, state-run institution to treat people with more severe mental health issues.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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