- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The Vermont House gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would make it easier for hospitals to give medications to mental health patients against their will.

The House version of a bill already passed by the Senate would allow consolidated court hearings - deciding both hospitalization and medication - when patients have been acting in ways that threaten serious bodily harm to others.

“We have people in the hospital who are violent, attacking staff, attacking other patients and making treatment not only for themselves but for others impossible,” said Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town.

The problems have been intensified since August of 2011, when flooding from Tropical Storm Irene forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Since then, many patients in mental health crises have been held in hospital emergency rooms, under guard by deputy sheriffs, while they wait for a bed in a mental health system very short of them.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, argued that the resulting pressure was prompting the Department of Mental Health and the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems to push so hard to streamline the process of medicating such patients.

In the 2012 session, Vermont passed a law - Act 79 - to revamp the mental health system, calling for placing patients in small, community-based settings rather than an institution like the 52-bed Waterbury hospital. A smaller, 25-bed state hospital is to open in Berlin this summer.

“I get what we’re trying to do here. I believe that the better approach would be to make sure that we have a full and robust mental health system in place,” Hooper said. “We had great dreams when we enacted Act 79. I really feel that we have not lived up to those dreams.”

The bill sets deadlines for the court hearings and psychologists’ recommendations - the various stages of getting someone committed to a hospital and medicated against their will - that are shorter than under current law. Jill Olson, vice president of the hospital association, said a key improvement from her group’s perspective is that the commitment process can begin while someone is still staying in an emergency room. Current law is unclear about whether that’s allowed, she said.

Even backers of the bill said they had taken to heart the pleadings of some mental health patient advocates that drugging someone against their will is damaging to personal rights and dignity and should be done as a last resort.

“We do not do this lightly. We do not do it with any degree of joy,” Koch said. He added, “We wouldn’t allow someone with a broken leg to linger like that and we shouldn’t allow someone with mental illness to linger like that.”