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Vt lawmakers hit Shumlin on mental health cuts

Dave Gram, Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Some Vermont lawmakers Tuesday said proposed budget cuts by the Shumlin administration would undermine efforts to improve the state's mental health system.

They voiced some of their toughest criticism of the administration on mental health issues since Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 flooded and forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

Lawmakers and the administration have worked since the storm to develop a new mental health system, calling for replacement of the 54-bed Waterbury hospital with a new, 25-bed hospital in Berlin, smaller locked units in Brattleboro and Rutland and a series of unlocked community-based facilities around the state.

But lawmakers say the budget proposal, presented by Gov. Peter Shumlin on Jan. 24, contains features that are likely to throw the plan into disarray.

"We're not even out of the gate yet, and the budgets are being compromised," said Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield and chairwoman of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

Shumlin's proposal would close a seven-bed locked facility in Middlesex when the Berlin hospital opens in 2014, and it contains no money for the four less secure "step-down beds" planned for Rutland and the seven beds planned for northwestern Vermont.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said in an interview that the "step-down" beds, geared to patients who have been hospitalized and are ready to begin the transition back into the community, should be considered key to the success of the plan in which the main state hospital would be replaced by a smaller hospital.

Donahue, a senior member of the House Human Services Committee, said cuts to community-based mental health services have been common in the past when budgets were tight. But she said it is disturbing that after crafting a major redesign of the mental health system and before the new design is completely in place, Vermont is proposing budget cuts.

"You had to know that over time it would shrink back, but I'm surprised (it would happen) in the first year," she said.

Top Shumlin aides, acting Mental Health Commissioner Mary Moulton and Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon, said the budget proposal should not be taken as a sign the administration is relaxing its commitment to revamp the mental health system.

Planning for the four beds in Rutland was not complete in time for budget drafting so they were not included, Moulton said. "We do need those beds," she said, adding that they are expected to be included in a later budget, perhaps as soon as the middle of fiscal 2014 next winter.

On the seven beds planned for but not budgeted for in northwestern Vermont, Moulton and Reardon said the administration was waiting to see how the newly revamped system develops before deciding how many beds should be acquired and what types of patients they should serve.

Reardon said holding off on some of the expenditures now will enable state officials to "reassess as we go along" in building out the new system.