The new state psychiatric hospital is struggling to recruit nurses.
Paul Dupre, the commissioner of mental health, discussed the issue Tuesday during a monthly report from his department before the joint Mental Health Oversight Committee.
In July, the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital opened in Berlin. The 25-bed facility brings the total number of available beds across the state to 52, just shy of the 54 beds at the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, which closed after sustaining significant damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
As of Tuesday, the new hospital held 21 patients, four short of its capacity. Committee Chairwoman Ann Pugh, a Democratic representative from South Burlington, asked if that meant there are no patients waiting in hospital emergency rooms for admission to the hospital.
Deputy Commissioner Frank Reed said that was not the case, and people, in fact, are waiting in emergency rooms. During the past week, one patient waited at the Rutland hospital for six days before being admitted, he said.
Part of the issue is that although the hospital has 25 beds, sometimes they can’t all be used at once. Some patients require one-on-one care, and for the safety of patients and staff, there is a limit to the number of those patients the hospital can house at once.
Currently, the hospital brings in seven staff members per shift to treat one-on-one patients.
Dr. Jay Batra, medical director for the Department of Mental Health, noted it’s a new staff and it takes “buildup time” to get staff membersfunctioning optimally.
Part of functioning optimally will include hiring for four nursing positions, which are currently being filled by traveling nurses.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, who is a nurse, noted that there are plenty of nurses in Vermont and asked why those positions haven’t been filled.
“We have people who are not there for just a few days,” Ayer said. “We know care would be better if we didn’t have this rotating staff.”
Reed said it takes a certain kind of nurse to work with the mentally ill, while Batra said that “one of the highest-risk environments you can be in is being a psych nurse.”
Part of the issue might come down to pay, Dupre said.
Traveling nurses receive $54 an hour, while the state is offering a salary and benefits package worth $45 an hour.
“I don’t know if we’re paying enough money to entice people to do this kind of work,” Dupre said.
Ayer suggested creating some sort of training program to prepare nurses for the challenges of working with mental patients.
“When the sickest people are all confined to one area, we need the best staff, and that’s not nurses coming out of school,” Ayer said. “We’re paying traveling nurses $90,000 a year. We’re paying sheriffs for three shifts. Has anyone done the math to see it would be good to have an intensive training program to have a trained staff within a matter of months?”