Retreat’s state hospital wing is ready
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | April 09,2013
Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin tours the Brattleboro Retreat’s new Adult Intensive Unit on Monday alongside hospital staffer Anne Clement.
BRATTLEBORO — Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the new state hospital wing at the Brattleboro Retreat as a major step to the state’s goal of community-based treatment of mental illness.
Shumlin said the newly renovated $5.3 million, 14-bed unit for the state’s most severely ill patients, when coupled with a new, smaller wing at Rutland Regional Medical Center, and the new state hospital in Berlin currently under construction, would finally mean parity for people suffering from mental illness.
“Thank you to the Retreat family,” said Shumlin, saying that the mentally ill would finally be treated “on a par” as physically ill Vermonters.
Being close to home and close to loved ones will speed people’s recovery from mental illness, said Shumlin. “That’s a better system.”
Shumlin praised the Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital that was founded in 1834, for coming to the aid of the state, when Tropical Storm Irene flooded the state hospital on Aug. 28, 2011.
Less than 24 hours later, the Retreat took in 16 of the most severely ill patients, the governor said, noting other facilities had refused to help the state. The state is still short psychiatric beds, he said.
Half of the single bedrooms in the new facility, on the fourth floor of the Tyler building, have sweeping views to the north of the Retreat Meadows, a part of the West River. The other rooms looked into a special fenced-in courtyard for the patients.
The former Vermont State Hospital had been decertified by federal officials 10 years before Irene, and the state had lost upwards of $12 million in funding every year because of the lack of certification.
That will change with the new facilities, Shumlin said.
The Retreat celebration packed more than 100 people into the wing, with a crowd that included Retreat psychiatrists, staff, social workers and security, along with the Retreat’s board of directors and legislators and mental health advocates.
Robert Simpson, the president and chief financial officer at the Retreat, said the state hospital patients were first moved into the unit set aside for the Retreat’s gay, lesbian and transgendered unit, and then later moved to other units while renovations were made.
The new unit, he said, was a beautiful new space with many safety devices.
“Today is the beginning of how we make it safe,” said Simpson.
Acting Mental Health Commissioner Mary Moulton said the state had long coped with the problems of the old hospital in Waterbury.
“The tropical storm did us a big favor,” said Moulton. “We have finally gone to a decentralized system.”
Moulton said she wasn’t worried about the recent problems at the Retreat cited by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency, last month.
Moulton said that all health care facilities have problems from time to time. Moulton said that most of the recent problems did come from the state hospital wing, and she said that patients had the right to file complaints about care.
“They are working to correct those issues,” she said.
One of the people praising the new wing was a former patient: Michael Sarsynski of Hadley, Mass., and a vice president of Merrill Lynch, and currently a member of the Retreat’s board of directors.
Sarsynski said that he checked himself into the Retreat 23 years ago for treatment of alcoholism, and stayed 24 days.
It was a visit that changed his life, said Sarsynski, who said he had brought other people to the Retreat for treatment.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a longtime advocate for the state’s mentally ill, also attended the event Monday. She said the new wing was “more like a prison than a hospital,” and faulted everything from the lack of toilet seats to the location of the nurse’s station far away from the most critical patients.
“I’m disappointed,” said Donahue, who said the Retreat had the opportunity to create its wing as “state of the art in terms of comfort.”
Instead, Donahue said, the new facility was poorly designed, and said there were obvious safety problems in the new wing already.
She and other patient advocates pointed to a newly installed stainless steel pay phone, which had a metal coil cord to the phone’s handset, which Donahue and others said could be used by a mentally ill patient to hang themselves because it was set too high on the wall.
Donahue also took issue with the seat-less toilets in the wing, which she said was found in prisons, not psychiatric hospitals. There are toilets with seats that pose no safety problems, she said.
Likewise, the wing has a separate bathroom for staff, which she said reinforced the “elitism” of the wing.
Donahue said the so-called seclusion room in the wing did not have its own bathroom, but that any highly agitated patient would have to be transferred to a bathroom through the general population, which she claimed was a violation of federal policy.
“That’s not true,” said Peter Albert, the Retreat’s vice president for government relations, who said the Retreat had built a facility according to CMMS guidelines. “We are very familiar with CMS standards.”
But Albert said improvements could and would be made in the future.