Health Care

Empty positions strain mental health services in VT

by Cora Smith, Community News Service

Nearly one in five positions sits empty within Washington County’s state-designated mental health provider. That’s a slight improvement from the vacancy rate over the last 18 months, said Mary Moulton, executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services, but it’s too soon to tell if the trend will continue.

“Since the pandemic, we experienced the same exodus — in particular some of our programs — as other businesses throughout the state and country,” said Moulton. “And for us, it gravely impacts our ability to provide services that people are expressing they need right now.”

Hundreds of Vermonters are seeking mental health support that isn’t there. In October 2021, mental health agencies across the state faced 20% vacancy rates, with some agency departments seeing rates as high as 50%, those in the field say. It’s a crisis, and mental health services leaders say lawmakers need to address it, demanding higher Medicaid reimbursement rates.

For Rutland County Mental Health Services, that county’s designated provider, vacancy rates have been high since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

“We have a number of vacancies and a number of positions ranging from residential care staff to licensed mental health clinicians,” said Dick Courcelle, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. “So this impacts pretty much all areas of the agency, and it certainly has become more acute this past year in particular.”

Staffing shortages make it difficult to keep up. Moulton said Washington County has 140 people on a waiting list to receive support. People in crisis can get help fairly quickly, she said, but folks who need long-term therapy often have to wait.

And the demand for services is growing.

“COVID has led to higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, drug overdose and overall stress,” said Julie Tessler, executive director of Vermont Care Partners, a network of more than a dozen mental health and social services agencies. “So people’s needs have increased over the last three years, and at the same time our workforce has decreased.”

Nearly 1,000 Vermonters are waiting for mental health services across the state, Tessler said. Waiting for those services can worsen mental health problems, creating even more dire scenarios.

“When we can’t provide the level of support that people need in our community, we can’t provide all the residential and crisis beds that people need,” Tessler said. “And that’s one reason some people end up in emergency departments.”

The staffing crisis and its impact especially poses a problem for Vermonters with developmental disabilities.

In Washington County, Moulton said her agency has 45 vacancies in its developmental disabilities department, leaving clients without the daily support they need to thrive.

Lamoille County is in the same boat.

“Some of the services that we do, nobody else does,” said Michael Hartman, executive director of Lamoille County Mental Health Services, another designated agency. “So that’s another challenge to it, is that there are some folks with very specialized needs because of their disability.”

Without the staff to fill these roles, Hartman said, these needs aren’t being met. Why is this happening? When it really comes down to it, the main culprit is money.

Vermont’s mental health agencies are largely funded by Medicaid, so they get a low reimbursement rate from the federal government.

Categories: Health Care

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  1. It’s not just the social service sector which can’t fill positions. When the federal and state governments stop using a flu-like virus as an excuse to keep giving away free stuff and cash benefits, people will go back to work. It’s not that complicated. The inability to find reasonably-priced housing, either rental or purchased, is still a problem for attracting workers of all sectors in Vermont however. The party in control in Montpelier and most of the federal gov’t is the party that thinks it is a good idea to invite hundreds of thousands of indigent migrants into the country. They need to live somewhere, and that somewhere is in reasonably-priced and/or taxpayer subsidized housing that is already in short supply. A majority of Vermonters vote for this nonsense. I hope you are proud of yourselves.