Vermont State Hospital loses certification; facility’s planned closure accelerated

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(Host) The Vermont State Hospital has again lost its certification and its federal funding after two patients escaped last week. Governor Jim Douglas says he’s disappointed the institution failed to maintain standards of care. He’s directed the Agency of Human Services to accelerate plans to close the hospital.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The decision by the federal government to pull the certification for the hospital came just two months after the hospital won back its federal license.

That earlier de-certification came after two patients committed suicide. The latest move follows the escape last week by two patients; one is still missing after she disappeared while in Burlington for a medical appointment.

Governor Jim Douglas says his administration had tried to improve conditions at the state-run psychiatric institution. But he says the latest incident shows that the hospital must be closed as quickly as possible.

(Douglas) “It’s clear now that the problems are so severe, so systemic that nothing short of total reform will adequately resolve this situation.”

(Dillon) The decertification will cost the state $1.4 million in the current budget year and $1.7 million next year. But Douglas and other state officials seemed less worried about the lost dollars than by the setback to their efforts to improve care at the century-old facility. Both Douglas and Human Services Secretary Charlie Smith said the federal government’s action was appropriate. Smith said the core issue is patient safety.

(Smith) “I frankly don’t think their penalty is out of line. Their concern is that, if you want to boil it all down, was back a year and a half ago when we had the prior decertification, the core issue was failure to supervise. In that instance it had to do with appropriate timing of checks. And somebody was able in a small window of time to commit suicide. In this instance, it’s a breakdown, a failure to supervise under slightly different circumstances.”

(Dillon) The federal government was already phasing out funding for free-standing mental institutions like the state hospital. Smith says that the decertification means that federal support for the existing facility is effectively over.

One lawmaker who is deeply involved in mental health issues tried to find an encouraging side to Tuesday’s news. Representative Anne Donahue, a Northfield Republican, says the administration hasn’t moved quickly enough in the past nine months to close the hospital. She says the federal government’s action may spur the state to do more to find alternatives to the hospital.

(Donahue) “I see this as something that may help get attention and resources to what needs to happen and hopefully redirect it in the right direction and a very rapid direction.”

(Dillon) The state has a draft proposal for closing the 54-bed hospital. But Senator Jim Leddy, a Burlington Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, says it’s not clear from the draft plan whether one or two facilities would be needed, how much it would cost, or how it would be paid for. Leddy says the state now faces an emergency, and can’t wait until a new facility is built.

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

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