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Can Vt. solve ER waits for kids seeking mental health care?

Published: Dec. 9, 2021 at 5:59 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are searching for solutions to ease the perennial problem of long ER wait times for children seeking acute mental health care.

Health care professionals from across Vermont pleaded with lawmakers Thursday to help alleviate the longstanding problem of Vermonters -- often teens and children -- left waiting in hospital ERs, sometimes for days.

“We have 10 beds. Five of those beds -- 50% of our emergency department dedicated to prolonged psychiatric treatment. One patient waiting six days for transfer,” said Dr. Ryan Sexton with Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital.

And that affects the ability of other Vermonters to seek other hospital services. Experts say pandemic pressures of stress, anxiety, and isolation have exacerbated the problem.

In the last year, some 200 children have sought care at emergency rooms. Hospital officials say 78% of them had suicidal ideations. During one point in time in May, hospitals aggregated total wait time for seven children. It took a total of 607 hours for them to receive care. On another day in October, 10 kids waited a total average of 1,633 hours. On most days, data shows kids are waiting over 24 hours for care.

Health officials say much of the problem is because of a lack of trained mental health experts. “There’s only one program in the state at the Brattleboro Retreat, and sometimes they’re full,” said Claudio Fort, president and CEO of the Rutland Regional Medical Center.

The Scott administration has earmarked $15 million for recruitment and retainment of specialists and another $2 million to keep staff in 24/7 community-based facilities. But lawmakers say they are searching for long-term solutions. “Both wages --and as others have pointed out -- support for child care and housing is making it very difficult to have people come into the health care workforce,” said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg.

State officials are also trying to prevent people from showing up at the ER in the first place, by providing investments in pediatric urgent care, similar to a pilot program in Bennington where kids can have a safe environment. “It targets elementary age children who are in distress, so those children don’t have to present to an emergency room,” said Vt. Mental Health Commissioner Emily Hawes.

Health officials agree that more funding for adolescent respite care is key, but lawmakers say mental health care needs to be recognized as an integral part of the health care continuum, and funded that way too.

The Department of Mental Health is also looking to continue to expand suicide prevention and school-based mental health services.

TO FIND HELP:

VERMONT CARE PARTNERS INTAKE & CRISIS LINES: https://vermontcarepartners.org/intake-and-crisis-lines/

HOTLINES & SCREENING TOOLS:

-Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) -- www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

-VT Crisis Text Line: Text “VT” to 741741

Text VT to 741741 - Crisis Text Line is FREE - 24/7 support.

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