Morrisville mental health facility to open Jan. 2; Department of Mental Health hires Novas-Schmidt as interim medical director

To ease stress on an overwhelmed psychiatric care system, the Vermont Department of Mental Health is opening and placing patients at a temporary eight-bed acute care facility in Morrisville on Jan. 2, 2013.

The state is also hoping to receive a conditional-use permit before the new year from the town of Berlin. This permit is necessary for the state to begin construction of a new 25-bed Berlin psychiatric hospital.

The Morrisville facility, deemed the Green Mountain Psychiatric Care Center, was supposed to open in autumn. Due to licensing and permitting hurdles, however, the center at Lamoille Community Connections wasn’t permitted until late December.

After the Department of Mental Health’s medical director, Dr. Jay Batra, resigned in early December, leading mental health officials were concerned that the facility would be further delayed. But after a rapid search, commissioner Mary Moulton hired Dr. Maria Novas-Schmidt for the position of interim medical director for the Morrisville facility.

Novas-Schmidt, with an M.D. and Ph.D. from Argentina, carried out her residency at Fletcher Allen Health Care and was a Fletcher Allen contracted physician for the Vermont State Hospital from 2005 until it closed after damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. While she won’t replace Batra, she will oversee operations at the Morrsiville facility for the time being.

“She has good rapport with the staff,” said Frank Reed, director of mental health services for the state. “She is very familiar with hospital requirements. She worked very closely with Dr. Batra and has good background knowledge.”

The temporary facility is meant to ease pressure on Vermont’s emergency departments, which are inundated with severe psychiatric patients unable to get proper treatment due to a dearth of beds.

“Hopefully it will help individuals who are in emergency departments and need an acute care bed to access one more quickly than has been the case over the last year,” said Reed.

The Morrisville facility is slated to close when the new psychiatric hospital in Berlin comes online. Reed said the hospital is still in the development phase and the department hopes the state can begin building in early 2013. The department hopes to have the new hospital up and running come January 2014.

The state originally planned to break ground on the facility in December, but the project has been delayed due to a hang-up in the application process for a conditional-use permit from the Berlin Development Review Board.

“Our understanding is that the conditional use permit is to be issued by Dec. 31,” said Mike Obuchowski, commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services, which is overseeing the project’s construction.

Berlin’s Town and Zoning Administrator Jeff Schulz said the town’s Development Review Board was preparing the findings.

“I’m confident those findings will be signed in the next day or two,” he said.

Once those findings are signed by Board Chari Robert Wernecke, they are sent to the state and the state must pay a zoning fee and possibly provide additional materials. After submitting that fee, the state would then receive the necessary zoning permit to move ahead with the project.

In a statement after an open house of the Morrisville facility on Friday, Gov. Peter Shumlin said the state has put the 25 bed Berlin hospital on a fast track and is finalizing a temporary, secure modular mental health facility in Middlesex on state property adjacent to the Vermont State Police barracks. “Opening this eight-bed facility and appointing Dr. Novas-Schmidt as interim director are critical steps in easing the pressure on Vermont’s strained mental health system since Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the state hospital in Waterbury,” Shumlin said in a statement.

Andrew Stein

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