New plan to expand mental health treatment in Vermont

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) A new, two-pronged plan to increase mental health treatment in Vermont.

Vermont has been struggling with a shortage of mental health treatment ever since August 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene washed away the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Vermont took action to build a new facility. But we have never managed to replace all those beds.

Now, WCAX News has learned there's a plan to help relieve some of that pressure. The University of Vermont Health Network has been working with state officials for the past two weeks on the idea.

The UVM Medical Center is taking steps to create a major addition to the state's mental health treatment system and says it can help the state deal with its mental health treatment system shortcomings.

State officials and clinicians agree-- the state needs more inpatient mental health beds. Emergency rooms around the state are struggling to treat patients because all the psychiatric beds are full.

"The need is there, we want to contribute, we want to be part of the solution," said Dr. Isabelle Desjardins of the UVM Medical Center.

There are two main points to the plan: One, turning the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin into a secure residential facility; and two, adding new inpatient beds at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

"There is no specific plan at this point and time. And the nature of the collaboration with the state is not defined and certainly the status of the current state psychiatric hospital is under the control of the state," Desjardins said.

Vt. Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille unveiled a plan earlier this year for more beds. But lawmakers panned it because it put those beds on the same grounds as a prison. The House Health Care Committee instead called for hospitals to create more capacity.

"We think that the state should work with the hospitals of Vermont to create more capacity for inpatient mental health care. We would be very interested in that and we strongly encourage them," said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg.

Gobeille says the UVM Health Network's nascent plan would help the state improve patient care.

"The number one reason that this is appealing to the state is because having mental health beds, and adequate mental health beds, at a hospital, is the most clinically appropriate setting for the care and well-being of the patients," Gobeille said.

The UVM Health Network would pay for the new wing at the Central Vermont Medical Center if the Green Mountain Care Board approves. The state would pay for use of the beds through the Medicaid program. The idea was first proposed by the Green Mountain Care Board two weeks ago. Chairman Kevin Mullin urged the hospital and the state to explore it.

"This would be a huge step in the right direction to getting the right type of treatment in the right place for people. From there, there's a lot of work that we have to do in the communities," Gobeille said.

State and hospital officials say there is a long way to go before the idea is ready to move forward.

"It's a big idea and I think people are going to want to take their time and think about it," Gobeille said.

Planning is in the very early stages. Legislative leaders will meet with hospital officials Friday to learn more details. It's unclear, so far, how many new beds the hospital is considering or when it will begin seeking approval.