MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill revamping Vermont’s mental health system, an effort set into high gear when the state hospital in Waterbury was closed in late August by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
Mental health advocates and some state officials had called for years for the Waterbury hospital to be closed. It lost its federal certification, and about $8 million a year in funding, a decade ago after two patient suicides that investigators blamed on staff mistakes and physical problems in a building dating from the 1890s.
"We should have made the transition years ago and we didn’t, but Irene made the decision for us," Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said as senators debated into the evening on amendments to the bill.
Both the House and Senate now have approved the measure calling for the 54-bed Waterbury hospital to be replaced by adding acute psychiatric beds at private hospitals in Brattleboro, Burlington and Rutland, as well as a new state-run psychiatric hospital to be built in central Vermont, most likely in Berlin.
The bill also calls for adding new beds in Vermont’s community mental health system for people who are mentally ill but not in need of the most secure, locked type of setting.
But lawmakers appeared headed for contentious negotiations in a conference committee over the size of the Berlin facility. The Senate sided with Gov. Peter
The Senate rejected an amendment calling for the private psychiatric hospitals that will be caring for some patients under contract with the state to be required to offer jobs to workers laid off from the Waterbury hospital as the private hospitals staff up to handle the new load.
A majority of senators sided with those who said the state couldn’t dictate hiring decisions by private institutions, after some argued passionately that state hospital workers acted heroically to evacuate the Waterbury hospital as a swollen Winooski River flooded it during Irene and should not now lose their jobs. The Shumlin administration announced 80 layoffs of those workers on Friday.
"They should be getting promotions. They should be getting bonuses. They should be getting testimonial dinners," said Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor. "And in fact they’re getting the bum’s rush. The least we can do is support this consolation prize," he said of the proposal that private hospitals caring for state patients be required to hire them.
All three major amendments -- one to increase the hospital’s size, a second saying the 16 beds could later be built out to 25, and the third on hiring by private hospitals -- were defeated easily before the Senate passed its version of the bill 28-0.