My Turn: State Hospital Vital

Op Ed – Printed in the Burlington Free Press on September 1, 2005

By Paul E. Jarris, MD, MBA
Vermont Commissioner of Health

The Aug. 28 editorial “Hospital Limps Along” stated that the administration “tucked” the Department of Mental Health under the wing of the Vermont Department of Health, which shifted attention away from the hospital project. This is false and disregards the intent of the administration.

Gov. Douglas and the Vermont Department of Health have repeatedly sought to amplify the importance of building a new state-of-the-art mental health hospital. There is universal agreement that the 105-year-old building in Waterbury that houses Vermont State Hospital is inadequate to meet the modern health care needs of Vermonters. An up-to-date facility has long been needed to provide Vermonters with the best psychiatric care and treatment, as well as a more recovery-oriented environment. We’ve been crystal clear on this point and continue to strive for widespread support for the expeditious construction of a new facility.

Patients and staff at Vermont State Hospital deserve the heightened attention they have received since the large-scale reorganization of the Agency of Human Services. Restructuring was done specifically to blend the expertise and resources of the Health Department with the expertise and resources of the Mental Health Division to improve the lives of Vermonters with mental illness.

Our primary directive—to improve patient care—has consistently driven our actions. We signed a contract with our state’s academic medical center, Fletcher Allen Health Care, to improve clinical care. We provided better pay and created incentive packages to recruit and retain quality employees. And as a result, we have attracted new nursing and psychiatric staff.

We poured millions of dollars into the existing facility to improve patient safety and living conditions. We’ve also developed plans for community services to augment the intensive care provided at Vermont State Hospital which will help to alleviate overcrowding and allow staff to better focus on patients in need of acute care. Every one of these actions has been undertaken to better serve our fellow Vermonters who are cared for at the Vermont State Hospital.

We’ve moved quickly to remedy past problems, and have been open and transparent every time there was an opportunity to right a past wrong. We have also worked--and will continue to work--very hard to be open and inclusive in our planning. The planning process has included at least two years of public and small group meetings, which provided ideas and guidance from legislators, advocates, mental health professionals and Vermonters who have experienced mental illness.

Throughout this time, the Douglas Administration has steadily sought to improve the quality of care at the Vermont State Hospital and to advance plans for a new facility despite numerous obstacles, including difficulty reaching broad consensus among the many individuals and groups that have a stake in this issue.

We are ready to move forward. It is time to build a new state-of-the-art hospital that has physical environment that promotes patient care and recovery, a hospital that is staffed like our current hospital with dedicated, qualified professionals, and a hospital that is supported by state government, mental health groups, and the community in which the new facility is located.

As Vermonters, we can be proud of the fact that our state is consistently recognized as one of the nation’s healthiest and most caring states in which to live. For the sake of our friends, neighbors and family members living with mental illness, we must live up to our duty to provide quality, therapeutic care. The time to act is now.