Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin, fourth from left, joins other officials in a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for a new mental health facility in Berlin.
BERLIN — After months of wrangling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Tuesday that the federal government will pick up the lion’s share of a $42.8 million plan to replace the 52-bed psychiatric hospital washed out during Tropical Storm Irene.
At the groundbreaking for a 25-bed mental health facility in Berlin, Shumlin said that FEMA will pick up nearly 75 percent of the cost for a replacement plan that includes facilities in Berlin, Rutland and Brattleboro.
Administration officials had at one point last year anticipated that FEMA would pay for as much as 90 percent of the construction costs. However, Shumlin said he was “thrilled” with the $30 million that federal officials have said Vermont can expect for the projects.
“That means that Vermont taxpayers will be paying for this entire rebuilt system between $12.5 million and $15 million,” Shumlin said. “That is a great victory for Vermont taxpayers and worth celebrating.”
The trials and tribulations of Vermont’s negotiations with FEMA became fodder for gubernatorial politics last summer when news broke that a technical miscue had led to an overly optimistic estimate of what Vermont could expect in federal aid.
Republican challenger Randy Brock chided Shumlin for proceeding with a hospital replacement plan for which he had yet to identify a funding source.
“I have taken some heat over the past months for pushing ahead with this project without knowing exactly how the dollars would flow,” Shumlin said Tuesday. “But I want to remind you that we had no other choice, that with the most vulnerable mental health patients not having a place to go, we didn’t have the option of doing what government does so well: waiting, thinking, planning, deliberating, arguing and hoping for a better day.”
At a cost of $28.5 million, the 25-bed facility now under construction in Berlin will become the centerpiece of a “community-based” mental health system that aims to move away from the more centralized program in place before the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury was evacuated during Irene.
The plan calls for 14 secure hospital beds at the Brattleboro Retreat and six beds at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Each of those projects will cost about $5.5 million.
While construction is under way in Berlin, Brattleboro and Rutland, the state will rely on temporary facilities in Morrisville and Middlesex to alleviate pressure on emergency rooms, which have been forced to accommodate mental health patients who previously would have been admitted to the hospital in Waterbury.
An eight-bed facility in Morrisville opened late last month; a seven-bed facility in Middlesex will be ready in a couple of months. The combined cost of those projects is $3.4 million, all of which will be paid for by FEMA.
The nearly $30 million FEMA figure cited by Shumlin will include any payouts from the state’s insurance policy.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions, said the FEMA funding levels announced Tuesday are “as good as it gets.”
“If I had to pick something to help us with, this is the thing we need to be helped with,” Hartwell said.
Flanked by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet, Shumlin plunged a ceremonial spade into a pile of camera-ready dirt on the Fisher Road parcel on which the new hospital is being constructed. The location, adjacent to Central Vermont Medical Center, has been lauded by mental health advocates who had insisted on proximity to a conventional hospital.
If Irene had a silver lining, mental health advocates have said, it was in expediting the long-running debate over how to replace the state’s century-old psychiatric hospital in Waterbury. The antiquated facility was decertified by the federal government, costing Vermont about $10 million annually in lost Medicaid reimbursements.
Shumlin said he expects that revenue to begin rolling back into Vermont when the Berlin facility opens by April 2014.
“When we get those reimbursements back, we will pay for our entire new system with federal dollars in roughly a year and a half,” Shumlin said.
Mark Landry, federal coordinating officer for FEMA, said that while he can’t officially announce the numbers Shumlin used Tuesday, the documents he provided to the administration “reflect with a high level of confidence the funding that the state of Vermont will receive based on eligible (damage) and eligible funding.”
Shumlin said he expects similarly refined estimates from FEMA on reimbursement levels for the Waterbury office complex in the next 45 days or so.
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