Closing Of State Hospital Strains Health Services

11/09/11 12:20PM By John Dillon, VPR Staff
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(Host) The closing of the Vermont State Hospital has strained emergency mental health services around the state.

That was the testimony on Wednesday at a legislative committee in Montpelier. Lawmakers heard from hospital officials about how they've had to step in after tropical Storm Irene flooded Waterbury and forced the 54-bed state hospital to close.

VPR's John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) Doctor Ed Haak runs the emergency department at the Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans. His testimony to the mental health oversight panel came in the form of emailed anecdotes from emergency room staff around the state about patients in crisis.

(Haak) "An agitated and chronically psychotic woman spent hours in our emergency department, then was admitted to the intensive care unit with police in attendance for 48 hours. She became agitated, spitting at staff, trying to spray her own blood on staff and required police and nursing staff to physically hold her down for protection. Mental health staff could not find a psychiatric unit to accept her as an involuntary admission."

(Dillon) Haak said the woman eventually admitted herself on a voluntary basis to another facility. Then tragedy struck.

(Haak) "She left that facility against medical advice and was murdered the next day in a screaming fight with her boyfriend. We're near the edge. So that's the view from the emergency department."

(Dillon) Haak said later that had the state hospital been open, the women probably could have been placed there against her will. Involuntary admission is a legal process the state can use in order to protect a patient or the public.

Haak called on the state to quickly develop a computerized system - called a bed board - that will match patients in need with beds available statewide. Haak said the system was first proposed four or five years.

(Haak) "Through legal, through IT, none of that has happened. Now we're actually - we've got the problem worsened with the Vermont State Hospital - now we're talking about a bed board. So we're so far behind the curve there."

(Dillon) Patrick Flood is deputy human services secretary. He said the electronic bed tracking system that the hospitals are calling for will be online soon.

Flood said he agreed with the hospitals that emergency rooms are a poor place to treat mentally ill people. But he said part of the answer to the crisis in mental health care will come from the hospitals themselves as they add more psychiatric beds.

(Flood) "The solution is about how do we help the hospitals do a better job right now, because they're right on. But they're part of the solution. And then, how quickly can we bring on some additional capacity to meet the remaining need. So it's not just all about a new facility."

(Dillon) The Shumlin Administration is committed to keeping the state hospital closed. But the mental health oversight panel also head from two state hospital employees, who argued the facility should be re-opened because it's the safest and most secure place for patient care.

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


waterbury vermont_state_hospital peter_shumlin tropical_storm_irene health politics
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