Shumlin administration to lay off 80 Vermont State Hospital workers

The entrance to Vermont State Hospital one month after Tropical Storm Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin

The entrance to Vermont State Hospital one month after Tropical Storm Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin

The state plans to eliminate the positions of 80 Vermont State Hospital workers in mid-April. The reduction in force is the largest layoff since the beginning of the Great Recession when the Douglas administration and the Vermont Legislature reduced state government by 660 workers, or roughly 10 percent.

The Shumlin administration says the large number of layoffs now under way is necessary six months after the closure of the state hospital in Waterbury when floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept through the facility on Aug. 28.

Since then, Vermont State Hospital workers have been scattered across the state in private facilities, including the Brattleboro Retreat and Rutland Regional Medical Center.

Next week, about 120 workers will receive reduction-in-force notices; in all about 240 employees, including a number of temporary workers were part of the Vermont State Hospital staff.

Kate Duffy, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Human Resources, said the decision was a long time coming. “Unfortunately this was not unexpected,” she said. “We gave the union a heads-up about a month ago.” She anticipates that after the RIF, the Department of Mental Health will be reduced to about 90 workers altogether, out of 179 full-time employees.

“We’re going to do what we can to help people,” Duffy said. “It’s unfortunate. Irene has done some things no one would have wanted.”

Duffy said the announcement today was prompted by private facilities telling the state they would end the six-month collaboration with state employees.

“We can’t do this forever, is essentially what they’re telling us,” Duffy said.

As private facilities begin to hire their own employees to fill positions, some state workers would be getting paid not to work absent the reduction in force.

“It’s hard to spend taxpayer dollars to pay someone who’s not working,” Duffy said.

Meanwhile the future of a state-run facility for psychiatric patients is uncertain as Vermont House and Senate split over the size of a future hospital. House Bill 630 lays the groundwork for a 25-bed facility; the Senate is looking at a hospital that would serve a maximum of 16 patients with acute psychiatric needs. The Shumlin administration is pushing for the smaller sized facility along with a decentralized mental health system that depends more on community-based care. Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, has cited cost concerns as a factor.

The timeframe for a new facility is up in the air. According to estimates from the Department of Buildings and General Services, it could take three years or more to build a new facility.

A pending bill in the Vermont Senate for a 16-bed facility at the Central Vermont Medical Center gives some clarity to the private entities, Duffy said. As the department begins to phase out state employees, the state needed to give 35 days notice to those who will eventually lose their jobs.

Duffy said she worked with the union to encourage members of the Vermont State Employees Association to sign up for voluntary RIF employment rights a month ago, which entitled workers to get on a list for openings in the Agency of Human Services. About 40 did so, and 11 have been placed in new positions with the agency.

Many workers were reluctant, she said, to sign on to the employment program because they were waiting to see what would happen with a temporary facility in Morrisville that has met with local opposition.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, employees have “bumping” rights that entitle workers who have seniority to take jobs from employees that are in a lower pay grade. Duffy said there are several hundred job openings in the agency, and she hopes to place as many state hospital workers as possible in positions there before the April 13 layoff deadline.

The fate of an interim facility in Morrisville is up in the air, and Spaulding said it would be four to six months before patients could be moved there.

“This decision has nothing to do with size of the new facility,” Spaulding said. “It has to do with the fact that in the interim we don’t have positions for these people.”

Duffy said H.630 includes a provision that would give current Vermont State Hospital workers the first right of refusal for positions at a new facility.

Members of the Working Vermonters Caucus held a meeting over the noon hour Friday to discuss the layoffs and what the Legislature could do to address the issue.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said it is unsettling that the state cannot wait to lay people off.

“In a matter of weeks we’re going to have a much clearer understanding of what’s going on in Morrisville,” he said. “Why not extend a courtesy to folks who have been on the front lines? Can’t we pay them for two weeks doing nothing. It seems like common courtesy, given what everyone’s been through.”

Rep. John Moran, a Democrat and co-chair of the caucus, said the announcement Friday caught many by surprise.

“We’re trying to sort out what this means for the patients in the different facilities like the Brattleboro Retreat and other places,” he said. “We’re also trying to find out how this will affect the welfare of patients and employees. It seems like people got caught flat-footed.”

Moran said there are some concerns that patients receive appropriate care without the specially-trained state employees.

Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the Vermont State Employees Association, said the state employees who have been shifted to other facilities deserve better.

“We’re putting people on unemployment lines who have been living in hotels, working 12-hour shifts sometimes away from their families sometimes in unfamiliar places,” Casey said.

Casey said the state workers have been essential to private hospitals that are not accustomed to treating patients with such intensive needs.

The association’s president John Reese said in a statement that Spaulding had promised caregivers at a recent meeting that the state would try to include them in contracts with private hospitals. No state workers are being retained at Brattleboro Retreat or Rutland Regional, he said, and in his view that’s an indication the state “didn’t negotiate hard enough” with the providers.

“The State’s decision to RIF these 80 state hospital caregivers does absolutely nothing to help alleviate Vermont’s very serious mental health crisis,” Reese said. “In fact, we think it will only worsen the crisis because it takes many dedicated and knowledgeable caregivers out of the system and away from a patient population that depends on continuity of care—and caregivers.”

VSEA Director Mark Mitchell said though Douglas “had an affinity for laying off state employees, but we never witnessed him laying off 80 employees at one time.”

“It’s shameful that after nearly a decade of providing top-level care to the most severely mentally ill Vermonters — in widely acknowledged less-than-ideal conditions — and after heroically rising up during and after Irene to evacuate this same population safely as water rose around them, the State is now rewarding these caregivers with a RIF notice,” Mitchell said in a statement.

Reese chastised the Shumlin administration for removing 80 experienced workers at the expense of patient care. He said the state is privatizing the mental health system.

“This means we now run the risk of the private hospitals just deciding to start charging Vermont more money to care for our most severely mentally ill citizens,” Reese said.

Editor’s note: Additional information was posted to this story at 6:39 a.m. Anne Galloway contributed to this report.

Alan Panebaker

Comments

  1. Pete Everett :

    More lies and liars in the administration. Where are these 100 jobs that suppost to be available? I know people who went and there was nothing, and with this program that was offered staff was told there were to be no layoffs in the immediate future, that was only 3 weeks ago. That seems to me like the immediate future. Funny how another big announcement and the Govenor is nowhere to be found. Also another breaking of the contract by the administration. it clearly states that with any RIF’s the VSEA must be notified 5 days before, which they never were. Mr. Spaulding is claiming that VSEA was notified on Wednesday, well that was oly 2 days, so once again breach of contract. It’s just really depressing to see good trained hardworking people who have given up their lives for the past 6+ months to be thrown to the curb illegally by an administration who feels they can do what they want. None of the people making decisions has any background in mental health, yet they are shunning educated professionals from not only this state but others where Shumlin’s plan was tried and failed. Community services and private hospitals are only looking for money for remodeling jobs and have no experience or training with Level 1 acute patients. These places are used to Level 2-4 patients not Level 1. Front line staff at these facilities do not want these patients, it’s the administraters who want the remodeling jobs paid for by the state. Do you really think in 4 years we will not be in the same boat again, when these facilities back out and say thanks for the money you gave us? With all and all a higher cost to taxpayers with the Govenor’s plan than that of a new similar sized state hospital. I just hope that our legislature’s see the lies and sneakiness of the administration. There is no reason not to go back into a building that is empty being heated and powered for the short term until something is built. From numerous people I have talked to familiar with the condition of the complex, it is cleaner now than it has ever been and would only take about 2 weeks for VSH to move back in as well as other state employees. This would keep Waterbury from becoming the ghost town and saving the businesses that have been lucky enough to survive. Everyone knows that if we were down south in the Govenor’s part of the state the complex would have been moved into long ago. I just hope that our legislature wakes up and sees all the sneaky underminding that is going on with the administration, and that sooner rather than later Vermont’s most vulnerable will once again recieve the proper care they need and deserve.

  2. Erika Smith :

    How can this governor claim we are Vermont Strong and do this to so many hard working Vermonters? Mr. Everett is absolutely correct about there not being enough jobs for these folks, and many of the employees do not qualify for bumping rights. How does this help an economy to put this many people on the unemployment line, especially when their services are needed? The private facilities are hiring, but it takes time for them to create new positions, hire people and get them through their facilities required orientation. These private facilties also pay less in many circumstances, as the job employees were paid accordingly for required specialized interventions when someone became violent that some other facilities call security for. It’s a simple concept. The more specialized the care, the higher the salary. Now that this specialized care doesn’t exist, these employees will be forced to take lower paying jobs in many circumstances. How does that help an economy? People could be forced to relocate or lose their homes. Vermont Strong?
    If any of the facilities administrators are saying they won’t continue the collaboration with the state, I wonder what else they won’t continue to collaborate with the state about. Maybe the involuntary admission process? They may have it in the contract to take them, but it doesn’t guarantee they’ll keep them until they’re actually ready for discharge or have adequate discharge planning. I hope the legislators are paying very close attention.

  3. Ansel Pembrook :

    With Mr. Spaulding’s negotiating skills this must be how talks down the line with the Brattleboro will go

    Brattleboro – We are raising the cost to take care of your patients

    Spaulding – No you can’t do that

    Brattleboro – But we are

    Spaulding – Oh ok

  4. NICOLE LEBLANC :

    Everyone deserves community based services!!!! The State Hospital was due to be closed!!! People dont belong in Large institutions! The mental health community deserves services in the community because its Morally right and everyone deserve to be served in the least restritive setting as the ADA states! The state should be trying to help them get jobs in the new system and with community based providers. Institutions must go!!!!

  5. Curtis Sinclair :

    Vermont State employee RIF (reduction in force) rights are very lenient in helping laid off workers find other state jobs. There may not be enough jobs for displaced employees now, but there will be in the future. Recall Rights continue for two years. Recall Rights are mandatory rights to a permanent classified position with State government.

    I wish the governor’s plan would go further and eliminate involuntary treatment. Hopefully improving the voluntary community health system will result in fewer people getting put into the mental health system involuntarily. Many peoiple, including psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, consider involuntary psychiatric treatment a human rights abuse.

  6. Kevin Tierney :

    The state claims with private hospitals that the need for experienced highly trained state workers wont be needed going forth. However testimony in the legislature relating to the size of a new hospital has shown that more beds are/will be needed, who is going to fill this interm void Additional testimony has been related to the dire one could even say “crisis” situation that is Vermont’s mental health system rightnow. So the administration decides that letting go “experienced staff” is the right thing to do. This is an outrage, how the Shumlin administration is deciding the fate of not only current mental health issues but has refused to listen to some of the states leading experts in regards to the direction of change regarding mental health, privatization of these services and trying to minimize the exposure to responsibility by passing the “buck”on to most vulnerable population of Vermonters. Has the state even looked into housing patients in the “two floors” on the Brooks building as a short term solution in order to alleviate over crowding and long waits in emergency rooms waitin gon a psychiatric bed to open up. The Brooks building could be a short term solution while the state builds a new state hospital and would give the legislative body time to think about the changes that are going to be needed in order to make Vermont’s mental health system a true “national” example of how things should be done “right”. Trying to rush such an important piece of legislation through isn’t in the best interest of the population served, Vermont Tax payers, and the soon to be state employees who have taken pay cuts (to help balance the state budget), worked to evacuate patients during the flood, and since Aug. 29th have been all over the state away from family,now only to be laid off.
    Shame on Govenor Shumlin

    • NICOLE LEBLANC :

      The state hospital was losing medicaid money! Institutionlization is an old and outdated was of caring for vulnerable citizens! We should be cared for in Community based setting!!! We should be Ashamed for keeping VSH open as long as we did while Cutting the Community based mental health and Developmental services system by5%+ millions of dollars over the last 5 years!!!! The designated Agency system needs to be fully funded!!! Everyone’s mental health needs need to be met in community based facilites

  7. Paul Denton :

    It seems odd that just a few weeks ago the staff and administrators at Fletcher Allen were on WCAX saying how difficult it was for their staff to deal with the behaviors of the former VSH patients. Now they are forcing the layoff of the VSH staff, the only people who were experienced in dealing with these same patients.

    There’s some kind of disconnect here.

  8. Kate Dempsey :

    I appreciated Chris Pearson’s suggestion, to pay employees for a short time while the people of Vermont wait out the waves of yet another possible site for a temporary state run facility. However, I must say I am horrified to know that Administrators, can believe that there is no need for the skilled staff from the Vermont State Hospital, once the need on inpatient units in private hospitals comes to an end. This crisis we are living in needs help everywhere, why can’t the state get creative and utilize Vermont State Hospital staff in shelters, for street outreach, or assist with crises which arise in emergency rooms across the state, as they are providing care to an influx of patients, who are emotionally unstable for long periods of time, sometimes repeatedly to do lack of bed availability. Why don’t we utilize Vermont State Hospital staff to transport patients to different services and locations in the mental health system to prevent the use of handcuffs by law enforcement? The experience and caring skills that Vermont State Hospital staff members have with some of these exact things I have just listed are not confined to a facility. If the state would continue to use Vermont State Hospital staff it would be a tremendous benefit for all members within this state’s community. Yes, by keeping a skilled workforce employed, but also by meeting the needs of individuals experiencing distressing times in their lives, and providing support to the broken system which we have force people, to be a part of.

  9. Barbara Lowe :

    Kevin
    I have asked all along why can’t we use the brooks building but it comes down to this why we do not, MONEY. It’s really sad to mess with our patients just because of MONEY and someones Pride because he spoke to soon on closing the Hospital before thinking about the whole issues.

    Yes Shame on you Governor Shumlin

  10. Geneva Smedley :

    we all pay our fair share in taxes, wouldnt you say. yet they want to come down on vsh state workers for taking your money and taking our jobs away,while we show compassion to the most vunerable adults day in and day out how are we taking your money i am doing my job they same as i have been before this flood occured, i will tell you who is taking your money. wait for it ….wait for it…..wait …for it….. people are abusing the system and good ol gov. shumlin how do you think he can keep affording to go on these nice vacations, cruises, and buy un earth friendly vehicles(while claiming better fuel efficiency)well give yourself hard workers a pat on the backs because it compliments of vermonts hard workers. yes all of you and me.See More

  11. Jeremy Smith :

    1) A “heads up”, as Duffy so eloquently blurted, is not an official notification. When was the letter STAMPED as RECEIVED?

    2) I have attended many public hearings in which experienced Mental Heath Care Professionals and family members of Vermonters in need of treatment have presented a MASSIVE need report to the Legislature for the creation of a large centeralized Psychiatric State run facility.

    3) Benjamin Franklin stated “in a free Government the People are the Masters and the elected officials their Subordinates” during the Constitutional Convention. Why are the Masters’ instructions being ignored?

    4) Legislators should visit the facilities, who are so graciously holding their hands out, to observe the treatment, discharge planning (or lack thereof), and experience of the staff caring for Vermonters in need.

    5) The layoff, and lack of action to identify an interim facility to care for Vermonters in need of acute care will affect many people. These are the people that will soon be deciding who will be the “Masters” and who will be the “Subordinates”.

  12. Curtis Sinclair :

    It is understandable that the governor wants to totally dismantle the old VSH before building a better way to deliver mental health services. The Vermont State Hospital had failed inspection after inspection for nearly a decade. VSH also represented an oppressive authoritarian form of forced “treatment” that should be considered a human rights abuse. When I was on the wards I saw people locked up and force drugged because they had committed such minor “crimes” as hitchhiking on the interstate or locking themselves naked outside of their motel rooms. I also saw patients tackled and tied up for innocuous acts like running down the hallway or taking a cup of milk out of a kitchen without a lid on it. That type of forced treatment is what VSH employees are expert in. It is understandable the the governor and private hospitals want to start with a clean slate.

    There were also patients who died due to incompetence at VSH in the mid 90’s well before the US Justice Department got involved after deaths in 2003. The staff and administration at VSH was in complete denial that they had done anything wrong in those cases. Nothing was done until the DOJ forced VSH to do something by bringing civil rights charges. The governor is doing the right thing by forcing the mental health system to change.

    • Jeremy Smith :

      There are many deaths in psychiatric hospitals around the Nation. State run institutions are under the spotlight much more so than private psychiatric facilities because the State run institutions are held to a higher standard of care. A higher standard of care is what Vermont is losing from the elimination of the State Hospital. Lastly, discussing these untimely deaths of Vermonters to drive an agenda is more than disrespectful to the family members of those lost.

  13. Curtis Sinclair :

    Private psychiatric facilities are held to the same standard of care that is applied to public hospitals. The Brattleboro Retreat is accredited by the Joint Commission and CMS. http://www.brattlebororetreat.org/about/accreditation

    There was a well publicized death at the Brattleboro Retreat in 2007. Unlike VSH, the Brattleboro Retreat quickly investigated that situation and made changes to improve safety. VSH resisted changes and did not document problems properly. Top administrators complained that CMS was only out to get them instead of acknowledging that there were major problems at VSH.

    The agenda is to improve the care of the mentally ill in Vermont. If anything it is disrespectful to stand in the way of progress. Instead of being obstructionist, mental health professionals should be thinking of better ways to improve community care so people don’t get to the point where they need to be hospitalized.

    Here is a story about Assertive Community Treatment (ACT)in Maine. http://bangordailynews.com/2011/01/24/news/as-lawmakers-consider-psychiatric-cutbacks-act-teams-could-play-bigger-role/

    Quoted from the Bangor Daily News:

    Maine’s leading mental health advocacy group has released recommendations aimed at reducing costs and improving the delivery of services — including a recommendation to close the 100-bed Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, formerly the Bangor Mental Health Institute.

    The report released late last week by the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, calls for integrated changes statewide that prioritize community-based services such as housing and vocational placements. Only by strengthening community support, supervision and training, says Carol Carothers, executive director of NAMI-Maine, can the state break the Catch-22 cycle that perpetuates an inequitable system that fails to serve the best interests of Mainers living with mental illness.

    • Erika Smith :

      Hey Curtis,
      Why aren’t you reporting on the deaths that have occurred at the Retreat since the flood?

  14. Curtis Sinclair :

    From the VT Protection and Advocacy investigation of a 2003 suicide at VSH:”Patient’s account indicated the staff at VSH treated him in a punitive, brutal manner and did not provide humane or therapeutic treatment for his problem of depression.” This report is very informative:
    /url?sa=t&rct=j&q=failure%20to%20do%2015%20minute%20checks%20at%20vermont%20state%20hospital&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CD0QFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.disabilityrightsvt.org%2Fpdfs%2FInvestigative_reports%2FED_Remarks.pdf&ei=af9LT8-UGoiV0QG9q8y5Dg&usg=AFQjCNH7vg1EhyIyBozYcUIGWNwRlO6zuw

    In addition to that there were other cases of people who could have died at VSH. I once saw a patient locked in a seclusion room for over six hours while no staff checked on her. I knew people who refused to work on the wards because the patients were treated so badly.

  15. Pete Everett :

    Yes Curtis why aren’t you? And notice there was an “s” at the end. You know why because they are being keep hidden by the Commissioner and the Govenor because they don’t want anyone to know that their plan will be a failure, if people really knew what was going on at the Retreat a private facility there would be NO question the plan wouldn’t work.

  16. Curtis Sinclair :

    That is a worse conspiracy theory than the one where CMS is out to get the hospital. Vermont Protection and Advocacy does not work for the governor or mental health commissioner. If you have any evidence of abuse at any facility they will investigate. Unfortunately people who work at VSH have become so desensitized to mistreatment that they don’t recognize it when the see it. I remember seeing perfectly lucid and non-violent people get forcibly drugged. I barely escaped that fate.

    I think in ten years when you look back at what happened at VSH you may realize how poorly the patients have been treated. Have you ever read the accounts of people who were giving people lobotomies back in the 1950s? They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. The lobotomy was such a popular “cure” for mental illness that Walter Freeman’s colleague António Egas Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in perfecting the operation. While Moniz was treating patients in Europe, Freeman started using an ice pick-shaped instrument in America to perform up to 25 lobotomies a day, without anesthesia, while reporters looked on. http://io9.com/5787430/the-strange-sad-history-of-the-lobotomy

    The VT state RIF system will help you get another job. Work with the union and ask them to lobby to get training for you and former VSH employees to get better jobs. That would be a much more productive thing for the union to be doing than fighting for a failed hospital and outdated treatment model.

  17. Pete Everett :

    Curtis, you are still using data from 9 years ago, things have changed and there has not been one at VSH in years. As a matter of fact there have been one’s more recently at the other facilities that are involved in the plan. As well as 2 within the past 3 months in one of the facilities. Why don’t you do some digging on that instead of using almost decade old statistics from VSH.

  18. Curtis Sinclair :

    To the “patients”- inmates is a better word – who were traumatized at VSH by mistreatment the “data” doesn’t see so old. CMS certainly doesn’t think things have changed enough at VSH to warrant certification. Citing statistics of supposed improvement is not going to allay people’s fear of oppressive institutionalization. Community treatment is the more modern humane way to treat mental illness.

  19. Eric LeVasseur :

    No patient would be tackled, no person would be committed involuntarily for public nudity or hitchhiking. These are examples of a long gone era, when VSH had 1500 patients.

    No person would be secluded or restrained for even the shortest time without significant staff observation.

    Patients that are lucid and non-violent would not be medicated involuntarily, as the application would not be written and would definitely not be approved.

    Making these false and/or historical arguments is a poor choice. There have been problems, both systemic and isolated, IN THE PAST. They have been resolved and the things that Mr. Sinclair references do not occur at VSH.

  20. Although it is true it is from back in 2005, this DOJ letter of findings concerning VSH at that time help to illustrate how certain persistent problems and violations continued to exist and also went beyond the physical nature or conditions of the facility in question and thus these and related matters cannot be said to have merely been a thing of the ancient past as some would have us believe (PDF version):
    http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/documents/vermont_findlet_7-5-05.pdf

    More along these lines can also be found within the following 2007 report as well:
    http://www.ethanallen.org/publications/specialreports/VSH.pdf

    In addition, one can read reports from 2008 through 2010 that are available online listed under “CENTERS FOR MEDICARE & MEDICAID SERVICES(CMS) FINDINGS” found on the following Vermont State Hospital (VSH) page:
    http://mentalhealth.vermont.gov/report#vsh

  21. Curtis Sinclair :

    “No patient would be tackled, no person would be committed involuntarily for public nudity or hitchhiking. These are examples of a long gone era, when VSH had 1500 patients.” NOT TRUE. I was there and I saw those things happen in the 90s when the hospital had 50 patients. Those kinds of thing were still going on when DOJ did their investigation in 2004. Now VSH says all of these problems have been cleared up, but I don’t believe it. I was put on an indefinite administrative leave after reporting payroll fraud at VSH to outside agencies. It looks to me like anyone who would tell the truth about what happened at VSH has been kicked out.

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