A look inside the new Berlin mental health facility - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A look inside the new Berlin mental health facility

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A new state-of-the art mental health facility is set to open in July in Berlin nearly three years after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the Vermont State Hospital.

Even before a visitor walks into the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, the clean exterior of the modern building and artwork out front make it clear you're a world away from the old state hospital in Waterbury.

Heidi Gee, the hospital's operations manager, lead a group of visitors through the entry.

"They'll be asked to lock up their belongings, then they'll get screened in the 'sally port' for any illegal items, things you can’t bring on for whatever reason," said Gee.

A chapel in the front is designed to also work as a courtroom where a judge could involuntarily commit a patient.

Patients who come in through a separate secure entrance will be assigned to one of the four units. Either one of the two adjacent wings with eight beds each or smaller four or five bed units, for those who need to be separated or just need less stimulation.

"This unit actually has eight beds and each unit is color-coded," said Gee.

Unlike the old hospital rooms in Waterbury that felt like prison cells and often had to be jury-rigged to make them safer for patients, these have the latest designs. Special handles and a sensor on top of all door frames trigger an alarm to prevent suicides.

Other differences are windows without bars that can open to outside air and perhaps most novel; most rooms come with their own toilets.

Nursing stations wedged between the units allow supervising nurses to have a clear line of sight to living spaces, and the dining and common areas.

Outside, patients have the use of a courtyard with a basketball court surrounded by a 14 foot fence.

Patients also will have access to an exercise room, a greenhouse and raised garden beds, and a room for arts and crafts.

Where patients in the old hospital could be committed for years, the idea with the new 25-bed hospital is to have patients move through the system faster, stepping down to a range of other residential settings.

"We think we'll be more therapeutic for treatment and recovery. Those folks will be able to move more readily through the system then they would before, because we've created more opportunities," said Frank Reed from the Department of Mental Health.

Mental health advocates in the Legislature are pleased with the prospects of a new hospital.

"It's a huge chapter and a very positive one," said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.

Donahue has been a longtime advocate on mental health issues and was a key stakeholder in the design of the new facility.

"It's our move forward into a really state-of-the-art facility instead of what was an embarrassment to the state," said Donahue.

But she's still concerned with costs. That's because those increased therapeutic opportunities come with a price tag higher than expected staff-to-patient ratios. Lawmakers budgeted $19 million to run the hospital. That's less than the $22 million it took to run Waterbury, but the small capacity in Berlin means the state will continue to pay for psychiatric beds at the Brattleboro Retreat and in Rutland.

"I've challenged them. Show me another hospital in the country that has anything near that level of staffing," said Donahue.

Unlike Waterbury, which lost its federal certification, state officials argue the new hospital will benefit from federal operating funds without a significant increase. But Donahue says there's no money left to complete two other facilities in Burlington and St. Albans that were to be a key part of the state's new decentralized mental health system.

"We're not net neutral. We're losing money in comparison to the cost even with regaining all the federal match and we haven't been able to do all of the originally intended community components, so that's very disappointing," said Donahue.

There’s also the capacity question which is will 25 beds be enough? Based on recent trends, mental health officials say yes. Donahue disagrees.

"We may end up in the long term caught in the same trap of not having the resources for community and therefore having people cycle back in the hospital unnecessarily and putting pressure on in patient," said Donahue.

"I think we continue to have a cost-effective solution right now that will provide very good care for patients. We were just not able to achieve given all the financial investment we had to do in the old state hospital," said Reed.

Once the hospital is up and running, lawmakers will return in January to try to figure out the rest of the puzzle that is Vermont's new mental health care system.

The first eight patients will be transferred in early July from the Morrisville facility that will be closing.

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