When Tropical Storm Irene permanently closed the doors to the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, administrators scrambled to accommodate the facility's mentally ill patients. New facilities are coming online, but the need for secure beds consistently exceeds the supply.
"Any given day we have a couple of people who are stuck in an emergency room," said Mary Moulton, the commissioner of the Vt. Department of Mental Health.
Moulton says 65 percent of patients are placed within 24 hours. But-- especially for the involuntarily committed-- the wait for a secure bed can take days, and require 24-7 law enforcement supervision.
"We've built our capacity specifically for the mission," Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux said.
The Lamoille County Sheriff's office currently handles about half of the mental-illness related transports and assistance supervision statewide. The department received training through a pilot program, earning the office a higher hourly rate.
"We like to think that we're helping out law enforcement throughout the state by relieving them of having to do that," Marcoux said.
The hours are filled primarily by newly hired, part-time staff, like former chiefs and officers. That allows regular officers in Lamoille County and elsewhere to focus on their primary duties. It's also freeing patients from cuffs.
"Where Irene forced us into this, it's really been good to change the way that law enforcement looks at mental health issues," Marcoux said. "We have found-- and the numbers will prove-- that the majority of these people do not have to be restrained."
One year ago, 85 percent of the Vermont patients transported wore metal cuffs. Now, 80 percent wear soft-restraints or none at all.
Over the course of 1,500 man-hours logged by his office-- about 60 cases-- Sheriff Marcoux says only eight individuals have been restrained, and only briefly.
"I'm pleasantly surprised and proud of that," Marcoux said.
Transports and assistance are not a new part of the budget formula for the state department of mental health. But with less room for patients, that portion of the budget ate an additional 33 percent last year, bringing the total to $160,000.
"The extra dollars are primarily due to people who are experiencing the waits and the sheriff support," Moulton said.
The frequency of waits should continue to drop. A $1.7 million, eight-bed facility is open in Morrisville, and a temporary, $1.4 million, seven-bed unit is set to open in Middlesex this April. By next spring, the brand new $28 million, 25-bed facility in Berlin should be ready.
"I really am becoming more confident that the plan we made last year is one that has a really good shot at working," Moulton said.
Law enforcement and health officials say they hope that doesn't change over the course of another year.
Since instituting the pilot program, Marcoux says he's received positive feedback from patient families, mental health staff and members of his own department.
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