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Help wanted: Vermont facilities seek to staff mental health beds

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 5:15 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - More mental health beds are coming online to serve Vermonters in crisis, but staffing shortages could leave some of them empty.

Pandemic restrictions cut down on capacity at many facilities. Now, as many are opening back up, they have to contend with staffing shortages.

It’s no secret that pandemic-driven isolation, stress and anxiety are taking a toll on Vermonters’ mental heath. More are seeking acute care and some are having to wait sometimes days in the emergency room until they are admitted to a facility.

“This pandemic has really increased the mental health needs of many individuals,” said Samantha Sweet of the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

The Brattleboro Retreat is opening up six new beds so they can treat 75 patients by Oct. 1. The retreat declined an interview but issued a statement saying: “Ultimately we believe we can open more beds and be able to admit people waiting in emergency rooms more quickly. It is always best for patients and the healthcare system as a whole when we can initiate a person’s psychiatric care as soon as possible.”

But beds aren’t the only issue.

The Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin has 25 beds for people experiencing acute mental health crises. But nine of them are empty because the hospital can’t staff them.

Almost one-third of all their positions are open-- 52 unfilled out of 187. And that’s after a recent hiring streak; 13 registered nurses joined last month. Five started this week.

Community mental health agencies are short, too, with about 780 open positions statewide but they are trying to find workarounds.

“Developing groups, doing groups outside as long as the weather persists. They are trying to be as creative as possible to make sure everyone is served,” Sweet said.

Northfield Republican Rep. Anne Donahue says wages aren’t keeping up compared with other hospitals or private practices.

“We’ve been working on funding for scholarships to entice people to come here to Vermont and work in the health care field,” Donahue said.

Donahue also says the Legislature needs to invest in other services to take pressure off of the hospital system with group homes, community outreach teams and others. But she says that will take cash and there are competing interests.

“Our committee has fought for getting those increases to the community but there hasn’t been enough,” Donahue said.

She hopes that as lawmakers return next session, watching Vermont’s mental health care crisis unfold will change their priorities.

At the same time, plans are moving forward for a new 12-bed step-down facility in Essex on the former site of the Woodside Rehab Center. Construction is slated to begin next month.

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