Julie Tessler: Calling for continued investments in community-based services and supports

This commentary was written by Julie Tessler, executive director of Vermont Care Partners’ Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of 16 nonprofit community-based agencies that provide mental health, substance use disorder, and intellectual and developmental disability services and support to over 35,000 Vermonters annually. Tessler lives in Montpelier and has worked to support this network for 26 years.

Two and half years into the pandemic, some of us are resuming lives that, although somewhat altered, are getting closer to normal, but many Vermonters continue to feel the ongoing crush of the pandemic after years of isolation, loss and stress. Lingering depression, anxiety, substance use and the aftereffects of trauma don’t go away overnight. Like after a hurricane, the damage caused will take years and a determined investment to restore the well-being of our children, families and communities.

Our community health and human service providers are facing a perfect storm trying to meet the increasing needs of a growing number of Vermonters. The average staff vacancy rate at Vermont Care Partners’ network agencies for developmental and mental health services hovers at about 18% with a third of staff leaving each year. For staff that stays, absences from work due to Covid outbreaks at schools, day cares or within families continue to impact agency functioning. 

Providing developmental, mental health, substance use disorder and 24/7 crisis services is challenging work even when agencies are fully staffed with well-experienced staff. During the pandemic and with our current workforce crisis, the challenges have grown as newly trained staff are being asked to work long hours and stretch their early expertise to cover staff vacancies.

The staff at Vermont Care Partners’ network agencies have displayed outstanding support, commitment and dedication to those we serve during these trying times. While the work is incredibly rewarding, it can also be exhausting both emotionally and physically. 

Vermont Care Partners appreciates the investments made by the Legislature and administration to address the workforce crisis during Covid. This year’s rate increase is covering rising health benefits and fuel costs and improving salaries and residential stipends that lag behind other similar employers. We are using Vermont’s premium pay program to support workforce retention and have been able to offer tuition assistance and loan repayment to many staff, which helps support professional development and builds expertise. 

Maintaining the highest standards for excellent quality care is our continuous goal. So, a recent report about abuse, fraud and neglect in our system is a deeply disturbing event for everyone connected to our network. Unfortunately, given the growing needs of the people we serve and insufficient funding to compensate staff at market rates, the risks to the people in our care will continue even with the investments made so far. We are committed to strengthening confidence and safety, but we can’t do it alone, it will require a broad-based collaborative effort. 

As a publicly funded system of care, we look to Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and the Legislature to invest in network agencies to mitigate these risks and provide the highest quality of care possible to Vermonters struggling with the aftereffects of Covid. The health and well-being of our families, friends and neighbors depend on it.

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