Health care professionals across the state view Patrick Flood, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, as the glue that holds the state’s mental health system overhaul together.
After Tropical Storm Irene rendered the state psychiatric hospital unusable, he spearheaded a major revamping of Vermont’s mental health facilities and standards to focus more on a regionalized, community-based approach to providing care.
When he announced last week that he was stepping down as commissioner in the midst of this major transition, he caught just about everyone off guard, including his interim successor Mary Moulton and state Rep. Anne Donahue, co-chair of the Joint Mental Health Oversight Committee.
“I do not know what happened with Patrick Flood, but the staff there did not know he was leaving,” said Donahue. “This was an extraordinarily abrupt and very unfortunate departure because they are going to be under huge, huge pressure now.”
Flood, who doesn’t have a clinical background in mental health, said that he never intended to hold the position for a long period. He said that Moulton, who has more experience in the mental health field, is better fit to carry out the role of interim commissioner until a long-term replacement is found. Moulton has agreed to run the department until July 2013 at the latest, and then she plans to return to Washington Mental Health Services Inc., where she was chief of operations.
According to Flood and Gov. Peter Shumlin, the current commissioner chose to leave of his own volition. He didn’t tell his staff about his departure before telling Shumlin because he said that would have been unprofessional.
“I think there’s a protocol for these kinds of things,” he said. “I’m not the one to talk about these things ahead of time. I didn’t see any point in advertising ahead of time.”
Donahue was indignant that Flood would leave in the middle of the mental health system overhaul.
“For somebody to take on something and then very abruptly leave at a point where the system you’re setting up is still really in the air just doesn’t seem really fair to the commitment you took on,“ she said
Flood maintained that his decision is in the best interest of the state’s mental health system.
“I know how to work in the Legislature, and I know how to fix a budget. I know how to run a department. I know how to do a lot of things that needed to be done, and I was happy to do them,” he said. “But with every passing day it just becomes clearer to me that there are policy issues that need to be talked about and individual patient circumstances that need to be talked about, and I just don’t feel like I have the right background to be the decision maker in all of those cases.”
Flood said that he felt hampered by his lack of clinical experience in the mental health field, but Moulton touted his other talents and his clinical background as a nurse.
“Patrick had a great clinical sense,” she said.” I think that someone who knows the mental health system really well is crucial and while it doesn’t hurt to have a clinical background in mental health, it isn’t essential … (The commissioner must) look at what helps people recover and what helps them get well, and I think he did that very well and downplays how well he did it.”
To replace Flood, said Moulton, the department will have to pull together.
“He is a great leader,” she said. “He has a body of knowledge about state government that not many of us hold, and he was instrumental in leading the charge on the new things we’re working on. He’ll be sorely missed, and it’ll take our entire team to replace what he knew.”
Flood plans to leave the department by the end of December.
Since the Dean administration Flood has been a political appointee, and he said he’s thinking about returning to classified service.
To replace Flood, the administration is launching a nationwide search. Moulton said that the next commissioner must be also community-minded.
“We need to find a person that will really include all voices across all of our stakeholder groups: from peers to advocates to patients to hospital personnel,” she said. “We need to continue to include everyone in the conversation. Patrick did that, and I’ll do that.”