State Hospital Staff Deserve Our Thanks

Burlington Free Press “It’s My Turn” Op-Ed

Submitted by Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Paul Jarris on May 16, 2005

[Printed May 20, 2005]

A recent Free Press article (Plan focuses on psychiatric evaluations, May 12) mentioned criticism of the Vermont State Hospital and reported that some staff members feel that they have been blamed for the hospital’s shortcomings.

I want to be clear, on the record, as saying that the staff at the Vermont State Hospital are some of the most dedicated, hardworking people that I have met. The people who work at Vermont State Hospital do a job that few others could, and they do it with compassion and understanding. These are people who come to work day after day, knowing that often they will be putting themselves in harms way to care for vulnerable patients. And in their compassion, they recognize that it is illness causing this behavior, not ill will.

For years, the Vermont State Hospital was continuously underfunded and many times ignored. Governor Douglas increased funding significantly as well as supported staffing increases since coming into office. Despite this investment and the hard work of staff, the hospital lost its federal Medicaid certification. At the same time, referrals from the court system and other legitimate needs are keeping our patient-to-staff ratio high.

Blaming the dedicated staff would be adding insult to injury. I know of no one—no one—who blames staff for the hospital’s shortcomings.

In fact, we have some real heroes on the team, people who maintain their professionalism and compassion under both physically and emotionally stressful circumstances— circumstances that have been made worse by the political uncertainty and by the disappointment of decertification.

After an incident earlier this month, I wrote to the staff to recognize their “exemplary response” and to express appreciation on behalf of the Governor. I’d like to share what I said in that letter, so there won’t be any doubts about how we feel:

“I want to tell you that I am proud to be associated with a staff that can act with such professionalism in such emotionally and physically challenging circumstances,” I wrote.

The incident, which involved a few patients engaging in disruptive and dangerous behavior, required staff from throughout the hospital to respond. This was an example of the kind of risk and pressure that our staff is under every day. And every day they react with professionalism.

We are in a period of transition as we plan for and construct a new acute mental health care facility. And, for the next few years as this transition takes place, the existing hospital will continue to serve Vermonters.

VSEA and the State Personnel Department are active partners in our efforts to support staff and develop incentives to retain staff throughout the transition, and I really appreciate how they have stepped up to this task.

My priority is to provide the support necessary to enable the staff and the hospital to deliver the best care possible—right now. Vermonters are fortunate to have professional front line staff who perform such valuable work under very difficult conditions, and we thank them for it.