After large budget shortfall projection, UVM Health Network puts adolescent mental health unit project on hold

The entrance to the Central Vermont Medical Center. Photo of the VTDigger file

Just after projecting a massive budget shortfall for two of its hospitals, Vermont’s largest health network suspended plans for an inpatient psychiatric unit for children and adolescents in Burlington.

The Vermont Department of Mental Health began seeking candidates in February to open up to 10 child and adolescent psychiatric beds outside of Brattleboro Retreat, the only hospital that offers such services.

Only the University of Vermont Medical Center responded, but did not commit, at the state’s request, according to Alison Krompf, the department’s deputy commissioner. The health center proposed to create a psychiatric unit at its children’s hospital in Burlington.

But all consideration of the project was put on hold after Burlington Hospital’s parent UVM Health Network failed to get the steep mid-year fee hike it wanted from regulators. state, Krompf said Monday.

Health Network spokeswoman Annie Mackin said the network had not been officially chosen for the project, but said the network had temporarily suspended all renovations, improvements and building construction until a new exam.

Krompf said Monday afternoon that the state is “working on a plan B” if the University of Vermont Medical Center pulls out of the pediatric psychiatry unit. This would mean looking for other partners for the project.

The planned teen unit is the first potential cut at the University of Vermont Health Network to go public after the Green Mountain Care Board denied the network a steep price increase mid-year.

It may not be the last.

University of Vermont Health Network executives previously said two of its hospitals in Burlington and Berlin are expected to end the current fiscal year with a shortfall of $44 million. Earlier this month, state regulators allowed the network to raise its service fees by more than $14 million this year, but the hospital network said that wasn’t enough to cover the shortfall.

The network is seeking to close the multimillion-dollar gap by “temporarily restricting” spending on construction and renovation projects until further review, Mackin said Monday.

The review is ongoing and still in its early stages, she said.

The health network has a series of projects on its list of priorities, including the replacement of the Fanny Allen outpatient surgical unit in Colchester, the renovation of the outpatient pharmacy at the medical center in Williston and the construction of a psychiatric unit for adults hospitalized at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.

Under construction since 2018, construction of the 25-bed unit was suspended in April 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

UVM Health Network leaders restarted planning last year with the goal of opening the psychiatric unit sometime in 2025. The exact cost of the project remains up in the air, but at one point the network proposed a prize of $150 million.

Like the adolescent unit, the adult psychiatric inpatient unit is an urgent priority for the state. The pandemic has pushed Vermont’s mental health system to the brink, and existing facilities, including Brattleboro Retreat and Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, have struggled to accommodate the number of patients requiring hospitalization. As a result, many adults in crisis have been waiting for mental health beds in emergency departments for hours or even days.

Mental health units, however, tend to make less money than other types of specialist care.

During the network’s budget adjustment hearings earlier this month, regulators said they were concerned about delays to the Central Vermont Medical Center project. Al Gobeille, a former regulator who presented on behalf of the network at the hearing, offered no assurances.

Mackin confirmed Monday that the adult unit at Central Vermont Medical Center is one of several projects being evaluated.

“We review all construction and renovation projects,” she said.

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