Category Archives: Mental health care

The Bourgoin reverberations

I imagine Vermont’s psychiatric community is nervously anticipating the fallout from the horrible wrong-way crash on I-89 that killed five high school students. Lawmakers will be looking to assign blame and prevent future tragedies, and they’ve often used the psychiatric community as a whipping boy.

There are things the Legislature and administration could do, but based on past performance, I have little faith they will come to the right conclusions.

A couple of points. First, the Howard Center is in deep shit. Second, here’s the lesson I hope is drawn from this: when you have an under-resourced mental health system with a chronic shortage of inpatient beds, you foster a bias against hospitalization.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Incoherent Rifle-Wielding Man, Blah Blah Blah

In a time when America is averaging more than one mass shooting per day*, the good people of Burlington just suffered through several weeks of a homeless man riding his bike around town with a rifle strapped to his back.

*FBI definition: four or more people shot in a single incident, not including the shooter. We’ve had 29 in July so far. 

Per Seven Days’ Mark Davis, police “found [Malcolm Tanner] to be ‘incoherent,’ and he insisted that laws do not apply to him.” But they did nothing about him because “he did not seem to be breaking any laws.”

Tra la la.

Continue reading

Fighting with both hands tied behind their backs

My pageview stats for the past several days tell a stark tale: I should stop writing about mental health, and go back to renewable energy*. So naturally, here I go with another piece about mental health. Ever the contrarian.

*Of course, if I really wanted to make clickbait, I’d probably write about nothing but Bernie Sanders.

The mental health care system has often come under attack in Vermont for mistreatment or overtreatment of patients, for alleged forced hospitalization, restraint, or medication. Indeed, the practice of psychiatry in general has few friends in the state. There’s a simple reason for this, and it has nothing to do with the quality of care.

It has everything to do with privacy.

Medical practitioners are legally bound to guard patient confidentiality. This is a very good thing, and I would not seek to change it. However, one of the unintended effects is that when a doctor or nurse or hospital is accused of harming a patient, only one side of the story is heard: the patient’s. If providers tell their story, they are breaking federal law and the ethical standards of their profession.

Continue reading

Our mental health sandcastle, part 2

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

— Matthew 7:26

A few months ago I was chatting, off the record, with a former Shumlin administration functionary. The subject turned to post-Irene mental health care, on which I have been very critical of the administration. This person expressed pride in the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, calling it a “showplace” and urging me to take a tour.

And perhaps I will. But here’s the thing.

Building a building is the easy part. You can usually rustle up the necessary funds, with or without auctioning the naming rights. Government money, grant funding, foundation support, private donors — all are attracted to flashy new things.

It’s a lot less flashy to operate the building once the ribbon has been cut. Management, maintenance, operating costs; attracting and maintaining quality staff and motivating them to excel; creating the systems that will ensure performance equal to the bright shiny promise of the new edifice.

Am I talking about the new state psychiatric hospital here? You betcha.

The hospital has never been fully and properly staffed. Hard work and low pay — and a dangerous work environment — have proven to be strong disincentives to recruitment, and VPCH has suffered from a high attrition rate.

I’ve been hearing background chatter about this, but recently we’ve seen two stories documenting VPCH’s troubles.

Continue reading

Our mental health sandcastle, part 1

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

— Matthew 7:26

Here’s something that close observers won’t find surprising at all: fresh signs of trouble in Vermont’s mental health care system. In my next post: staffing shortages and other troubles in the system’s crown jewel, the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. This time: Again with the Brattleboro Retreat.

The Vermont attorney general’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the Brattleboro Retreat following a whistleblower’s complaints about alleged Medicaid fraud at the private psychiatric hospital, The Associated Press has learned.

Ruh-roh. The AP’s Dave Gram quotes AG Bill Sorrell as characterizing the probe as “not narrow in scope,” and that it goes beyond the whistleblower’s complaint into other areas.

As for that complaint:

[Former Retreat staffer Thomas] Joseph alleged a yearslong pattern of instances in which, if overcharges showed up in patient accounts, Retreat staff would not make refunds but instead would change the account to reflect a balance of zero.

If the accusations are true, the Retreat would be in deep shit with Medicaid, which (according to Gram) supplies the Retreat with roughly one-fourth of its total funding.

Yeah, that’s not an enemy you want to make.

Continue reading

The downside of subcontracting human services

We had an unintended confluence on the Thursday edition of the Mark Johnson Show, hosted by Yours Truly. Back-to-back interviews with VTDigger’s Morgan True and State Auditor Doug Hoffer turned out to cover some common themes.

True had reported on problems at Rutland Mental Health Services, one of the state’s “designated agencies” for providing social services. Hoffer had just released a very critical performance audit of the Corrections Department’s transitional housing program. I was in the middle of the show when the light bulb went off. Both interviews were kind of about the same thing: Inadequate oversight of human services contractors.

In both cases, an Agency of Human Services program is contracted out to nonprofit agencies that get virtually all their funding from the state. In a way, it’s a mutually captive relationship: the agencies are completely dependent on the state, and the state effectively has no options for replacing a poorly-performing contractor.

In their own way, True and Hoffer found similar problems in different areas of AHS: lack of consistent oversight, gaps in service provision, and inadequate methods for tracking performance. (In the case of RMHS, the situation boiled over into scandal.) The result is a system that looks good from a distance, not so good up close. Its failures are partly due to lax oversight; but we should also consider whether poor contractor performance may also be due, at least in part, to bare-bones funding by the state.

After the show was over, I pondered another issue: What does the Rutland situation have to say, if anything, about the Shumlin administration’s community-based mental health care system? Because those designated agencies are the front-line troops in that effort.

Continue reading

Shumlin’s mental health care system still kind of a mess

Very interesting article by VTDigger’s Morgan True, which will get buried under today’s good news about Vermont Health Connect. The story details a plan to build a 16-bed secure inpatient facility for the severely mentally ill.

This specific plan comes from Northeast Kingdom Human Services, which proposes the hospital as part of a multipurpose “social service campus” in the distant hamlet of Bloomfield, pop. 262. How distant? It’s more than an hour northeast of Saint Johnsbury.

That seems like a bad idea for a number of reasons. It’s awfully far away from any sizeable hospital; proximity to a full-scale medical center is considered prudent for a secure inpatient facility. It’s a hell of a drive for the vast majority of those wanting to visit a patient. And there’s the problem of attracting qualified staff to such a remote locale.

This may be nothing more than a fever dream by NKHS; the state is nosing around for a new facility but has made no commitments to the Kingdom. But it does point out something I hadn’t realized: the administration is again looking to expand the system because it is still overstressed.

It’s almost a year since the new hospital in Berlin opened its doors, and there are still severely mentally ill patients waiting in emergency rooms for days at a time because there aren’t enough secure beds. And the state faces a looming, if somewhat unofficial, deadline to close a “temporary” seven-bed facility in Middlesex by 2018. Continue reading