DAVE GRAM, Associated Press

MONTPELIER -- Two Vermont Senate committees heard from hospitals and mental health officials Wednesday that the state needs to speed up its legal process for requiring some mental patients to take psychiatric medications against their will.

Vermont currently has stricter protections for patients who do not wish to take psychiatric drugs than many other states do, with the result that mental health caregivers are placed at risk and patients suffer from their illness longer, officials testified.

Dr. Gordon Frankle, chief of psychiatry at the Rutland Regional Medical Center, said one man in his early 20s with schizophrenia appeared to be working well with staff and within programs at the hospital. But one day, without warning, "he walked up behind a staff member who was sitting at a table, talking to another patient, and he, with a closed fist, hit that staff member on the side of the head as hard as he could.

"He knocked that staff member to the ground, nearly knocked him unconscious, picked him up by the hair and hit him again before other staff could intervene. There was no warning; he didn’t threaten anyone, he didn’t state that he was going to hurt anyone. He just did this. That individual had a traumatic brain injury from this incident," Frankle said.

Legislation under review by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee would allow for a combined request to a court to hospitalize a patient against his or her wishes and to force the person to take medication. They currently require separate hearings, the first of which often doesn’t happen until 40 days or longer after the patient is hospitalized.

But forced mediation has been an emotionally charged topic in Vermont. Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, summed up the concerns of its critics this way: "It’s as profound a deprivation of liberty as one can make. It’s an invasion of the body and an invasion of the mind."

But he added, "Sometimes deprivations of liberty are necessary."

Jack McCullough, director of the Mental Health Law Practice at Vermont Legal Aid, which represents most patients in involuntary treatment hearings, said he did not see Vermont’s current system of court reviews as a problem. He said the push for changes came, in part, from the fact that the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury had been forced to close by flooding in 2011, and that patients now were being cared for in smaller and less well staffed hospital psychiatric units around the state.

Most of the cases in which the state Department of Mental Health seeks involuntary medication are settled before they go to a court hearing, officials said. Either the patient gets better or agrees to treatment and medication.

Judge Amy Davenport, administrator of the Vermont trial courts, said she worried an expedited process could lead to more hearings and more burden on the courts by cutting the time during which a settlement could be reached.