Shumlin Warns Lawmakers Not To Add Beds To State Hospital

02/29/12 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Governor Peter Shumlin wants lawmakers to quickly send him a bill that overhauls the state's mental health system.

The Senate is expected to vote on the issue today. But the governor has warned the legislature not to tinker with his proposal for a new 16-bed regional facility. He says lawmakers risk losing federal money if they make the state hospital larger.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Host) At his weekly news conference, Shumlin expressed some frustration with lawmakers over their delay in approving his mental health plan.

(Shumlin) "What I think the legislature must understand is that we are in a crisis. People's lives are at stake here. Get me a bill. This crisis will not get better with time. Every day that we don't have a bill on my desk it's more likely that tragedy is going to come to Vermont."

(Dillon) Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene closed the state hospital in Waterbury last August. Since then, hospitals and emergency providers say they've struggled to provide services.

The governor has proposed a plan that would establish a system of regional care and a 16-bed central facility.

But the administration's announcement last week that it would lay off 80 state hospital employees made the political path for Shumlin more difficult.

(Ashe) "I think that the Legislature would be irresponsible to vote on a fundamentally changed system without knowing what the dollars and cents involved are."

(Dillon) Tim Ashe is a Democrat-Progessive senator from Chittenden County. He says the administration's plan to privatize the care of people with mental illness in state custody triggers a statute that requires that the state realize a 10 percent savings.

(Ashe) "Cost is only one consideration. The outcome for patients is also a critical and the most critical piece of the puzzle. And while I think everyone has their best interests in mind, we do also have to be thinking of a cost-effective model moving forward. And we can't merely circumvent the statutes as I read them."

(Dillon) The governor doesn't believe the statute applies to his administration's state hospital plans.

And he urged senators to approve a 16-bed facility, not the larger, 25-bed facility approved earlier by the House. Shumlin said millions of dollars are at stake because, he says, the federal government won't reimburse the state for patients cared for in a hospital that has more than 16 beds.

(Shumlin) "Should this Legislature vote for more than 16 beds, Vermont taxpayers will be paying $10 million every single year in operating a new hospital out of their pockets."

(Dillon) The governor also defended the state employee layoffs. He said state workers knew that they would have to be let go because there's no longer a state hospital in Waterbury. Many of the employees have been working at private facilities around the state but those hospitals have said they want to hire their own workers.

(Shumlin) "I don't think the state of Vermont has the right to tell private providers -businesses - who they hire and who they don't hire."

(Dillon) The state employees union says the hospital workers were heroes when they rescued patients during Irene. Many workers then moved with the patients to provide care at other facilities over the last six months. The union wants to block the lay-offs, and it would like its members to work in the new mental health system.

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

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