Editorial: Closing Waterbury facility is a tough, but necessary, move

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision to close the state hospital in Waterbury comes just in time to avoid wasting precious state dollars on repairs to an antiquated facility, built in 1890, that has needed to be shuttered for years. That it took a flood of disastrous proportions to prompt the decision is testimony to the ill affects of a political system in which protecting one’s own economic turf is more important than doing what’s right for patients or the state as a whole. It’s understandable, but a real obstacle when needed changes must be made.
That said, the governor’s intent to split the services between existing facilities in Brattleboro, central Vermont and elsewhere is well considered.
First, it places about 14 patients in already accredited facilities like the Brattleboro Retreat, thus lessening the need to build a new, larger facility as well as maximizing the use of the Retreat and strengthening that institution’s revenue. Second, it prevents a stop-gap proposal to spend $1.3 million to fix up the un-flooded floors of the Brooks Building in Waterbury that had previously accommodated 51 patients. To repair the entire building would have cost a small fortune, and the state would have still had an inferior building. Third, the plan calls for locating 15 acute-care beds in central Vermont (possibly in Williston or Barre, or where other existing facilities could quickly accommodate the need), as well as establishing two additional “step-down” facilities where patients transition from acute care treatment to re-entering the community. That spreads the service to different parts of the state (a possible convenience to families) and reduces the risk of any one facility being denied accreditation or put out of commission by a natural disaster. Fourth, it would expand so-called intensive “wrap-around” services for another 20 people that delivers care in “more of a home-based model of service.” The state has been doing this successfully for the past two decades.
While all the details of the plan have yet to be ironed out, the thrust of the initiative is right on the mark.
It takes political courage to close down a facility — even an antiquated one damaged in a flood — in which about 240 state employees work and live, and potentially move those jobs to another area of the state. But Gov. Shumlin rightly acknowledged that the facility was simply not fit to provide patient care in a respectful manner.
“It was my belief,” he said in an announcement on Thursday, “that the state hospital was not a facility that dignified the treatment that we should give to our most vulnerable citizens in this state…. It is old, it is decrepit,” and it does not serve Vermonters well, he said.
The challenge now is to deliver adequate, if not superior, service to the patients in facilities that reduce the long-term costs of building maintenance to the state — a possibility, though not a slam-dunk, with the current proposal. As importantly, the plan as outlined should make the state eligible for Medicaid and Medicare dollars — about $10 million a year — that the state has forfeited for nearly a decade because of inadequate quality of care based on the poor condition of the facilities.
While it will take three-to-five years to fulfill the plan, it’s a bold step in the right direction and will hopefully resolve a political hot-potato that has hamstrung the administrations of the previous two governors.
In addressing the potential displacement of workers, Gov. Shumlin pledged that the state would try hard to make sure employees continued to have jobs in the evolving system, but that shouldn’t mean duplication of services where such work is not needed. There should be no political retribution for merging services into existing facilities, for instance, and realizing whatever savings may be possible, if any. And he appropriately took aim at a grievance filed by the State Employee’s Union seeking emergency double-pay, suggesting that no one should seek to benefit from the disaster and that such actions by the union were giving the rest of the states workers a “black eye” in the eyes of residents across the state.
It’s refreshing to see a state leader take tough stands and defend them with such matter-of-fact common sense, and without a finger in the air to gauge the political fallout.
Angelo S. Lynn

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