Forced medication bill criticized in Montpelier


MONTPELIER >> Gov. Peter Shumlin's controversial proposal to speed up court-mandated mental health treatment came under fire at hearings on the state budget Thursday.

The Department of Mental Health wants to reduce the amount of time it takes to obtain court-ordered approvals for forced treatment of suicidal or homicidal patients. The shortened timeframe would save the state about $5 million, according to projections from the department.

Citizens and advocates for the poor and mentally ill pushed back on the proposal at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday night. Other members of the public said the state is not spending enough on disability services, child care services and housing. The committee is in the process of vetting the governor's proposed $1.53 billion state budget for the next fiscal year.

One speaker introduced himself as a 27-year resident of Vermont who has struggled with mental illness.

"I'd be willing to take cuts in other programs in order to avoid what is proposed in this language," Zachary Hughes said at a public hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Xenia Williams was living in Boston when she was hospitalized and forced to take medication for mental illness against her will. Williams took the medication for 14 years, and she said the drug turned her into a "zombie."

Williams testified against the administration's proposal to change the state's procedure for involuntarily medicating mental health patients who have refused medication.

The administration says that by shortening the process from more than 40 days to about two weeks, patients would get the care they need more quickly.

But Williams said that in her experience as a patient and a former mental health worker, forced medication is at odds with the other therapeutic elements that go into recovery from mental health crisis. One part of her recovery was learning to take more control over her life, which she described as "agency."

"Being forced drugged is the opposite of gaining agency," Williams said.

Williams told the committee that there are other ways that people with mental illness can stabilize without being forced to take pills.

"People can recover with proper supports," Williams said.

Wilda White, of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, told the committee that she has personal experience with involuntary medication. White's brother was forced to take medication for a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The medication has had serious side effects for him; he's struggled with a movement disorder, had his thyroid removed, suffered kidney failure and now has diabetes, she said after the hearing.

"Those are costs you never hear the department talking about when they do their $5 million tabulation," White said. "They don't talk about the cost to the patient of these medications."

A cut in last year's budget also came up multiple times at the hearing. Witnesses testified that a $125 reduction in the monthly benefit that some 800 families receive under the Reach Up program has had a profound impact.

The cut, part of the state budget in FY 2016, deducted $125 from a family's total benefit if an adult member of the household receives Supplemental Security Income, a federal disability benefit. The policy change was slated to save an estimated $1.6 million for the state every year.

But advocates urged lawmakers to reverse the policy for the next fiscal year.

"The cost of living with a disability we know is higher than living without a disability," Sarah Launderville, of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said.

Nicole LeBlanc, advocacy director of Green Mountain Self Advocates, also brought up the SSI policy change.

"While losing $1,500 a year may sound like a drop in the bucket to some, for mothers with disabilities this means hard choices," LeBlanc said.

She also raised concerns about the lack of a cost-of-living increase for developmental services providers — which she linked to high rates of staff turnover.

"Having staff stability is an important part of keeping people out of crisis," she said.

Others brought up the lack of an increase for the Child Care Financial Assistance program. The governor's budget level-funds the program, which subsidizes childcare for low-income families.

Matt Levin, director of Early Childhood Alliance, said that the program would need an increased appropriation of $1.5 million in the next fiscal year to keep up with current demand on the program.

"We need to do everything within our power to keep families strong," Kathleen Burroughs, director of Kid Country Child Care Center.

The committee is scheduled to take further public testimony at five hearings around the state on Monday.

Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger.


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