Just three days after the Governor announced his plan for the future of Vermont mental health, there was sadness, anger, frustration and fear in the VFW Hall yesterday, as a large group of Vermont State Hospital caregivers met with State officials, including Secretary of the Administration Spaulding, to learn more about what will happen to the patients in their care and what will happen to their job. Unfortunately, the employees left the Hall with little more knowledge then they entered with.
Following official meeting, VSEA President and Director meet directly with VSH employees to talk strategy and campaign development! Coming soon!
Department of Mental Health Commissioner Christine Oliver called an all-employee meeting on 12/16 for workers at the Vermont State Hospital. The meeting at the VFW Hall in Montpelier was well attended, and employees said more of their co-workers wanted to come but they are working in every corner of Vermont, en route to their temporary placements (some whose commute is now Waterbury to Brattleboro), or at home spending some much-needed time with their families after spending days living out of hotels or group housing to defray travel costs (and prevent an accident from driving while exhausted).
Because the meeting came fresh on the heels of the Shumlin Administration’s announced plan for the foreseeable future for the services formerly provided exclusively by caregivers at the Vermont State Hospital, employees (and, frankly VSEA) were nervous about what news Oliver and Secretary of the Administration Jeb Spaulding were about to deliver on the future of the patients in their care and the future of their jobs.
With respect to patient care, employees gave Spaulding and Oliver an earful, saying that:
1) Vermont was preparing to throw away a century-plus commitment to Vermont’s most vulnerable that the State would protect them. Now, employees fear, the patients in their care are being turned over to private hospitals more concerned with profit and not providing the level of care found–and taught–at the VSH;
2) Vermont was about to commit what can only be described as a "travesty";
3) VSH employees currently working in some of the private hospitals being considered in Shumlin’s plan are witnessing a level of care that is not anywhere near what is provided at the VSH. In addition, in some cases, the private hospital staff is not trained in the same techniques VSH staff employ to bring calm to chaos, leading to the use of "hospital security," which, according to some VSH employees, can sometimes be "abusive"; and
4) This should not be a debate about money. The debate should be about what is best for these vulnerable Vermonters.
One very small meeting upside was that neither Oliver nor Spaulding delivered the jobs death knell…at least not yet.
Spaulding spent part of the meeting laying out the Administration’s plan, explaining that nothing being proposed is final until the Legislature fully examines the Governor’s plan and gives it a thumbs up or down, tweaks it, whatever (for some reason, Spaulding then felt compelled to chide the group that the Legislature "doesn’t usually make many changes to the Governor’s plan"). He also told the crowd that the State had not entered into any contracts with any private hospitals or other health care facilities and would not do so until the plan had gone to the Legislature for its blessing. That comment was in response to an employee’s question about VSEA’s request that the State adhere to the mandates of the state’s privatization statute. Spaulding also said the State was limited to building nothing more than a 16-bed hospital because federal requirements stipulate that federal money only be provided to mental health facilities with 16 beds or less. Several employees took exception to Spaulding’s interpretation, one citing the recent building of a new 240-bed mental health facility in Massachusetts. in response, Spaulding issued several challenges to the crowd to "bring me the information if you can prove otherwise." One employee, responded "I’ll bring it to your office."
Finally, the main question on everyone’s mind was asked point blank by an employee "What is our job future?"
Unfortunately, the best Spaulding could offer was an assurance that the Shumlin Administration would "work hard" to try and convince the private hospitals to write into contracts that they would hire some VSH staff. He also repeated often that the Administration was prepared to try and land as many employees as possible in other State positions (earlier in the year, Spaulding referred to the positions that will be made available to displaced/RIF’d VSH employees as "rewarding." We’ll see).
Needless to say, the employees left the 12/16 meeting with little more information then they previously had, but at least Commissioner Oliver and Mr. Spaulding got to hear how passionate these caregivers are about their patients’ future well-being and how concerned they are that Vermont seems prepared to throw a century-plus of caregiving expertise down the drain.
Several employees cried during the meeting, some were angry and others frustrated, but to a person, they were respectful, educated and ready to fight to protect their services.
VSEA VSH Campaign
Following the official meeting, VSEA President John Reese and VSEA Director Mark Mitchell called an informal "union" meeting with the large group of employees who remained. The two announced that the VSEA Board of Trustees had given its full support to a union-wide campaign to save the VSH’s services.
Without getting into too much public detail, the two urged the employees to start working the phones, writing letters and educating friends, neighbors, private-hospital employees and anyone else who will listen about the VSH’s importance to Vermonters. More to come.
VSEA urges EVERY VSEA member to get involved in this campaign!