MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation designed to streamline the process for getting a court to order involuntary treatment and medication of psychiatric patients.
The 26-4 vote punctuated two months of impassioned debate and testimony before two Senate committees in which some family members and caregivers of psychiatric patients said the process moves too slowly now, while some former patients and their advocates argued that forced medication is such an invasion it should be done only with great deliberation.
"This bill makes six changes to our present system that will allow better access to a court decision, while preserving the due process of the patient," said Sen. Jeanette White, who represented the Judiciary Committee in describing the bill to her colleagues.
Current law calls for a two-step process in which a court first reviews a request someone be hospitalized involuntarily, and only after a decision on that can the court review whether involuntary medication is appropriate. The bill advanced Wednesday would still require the applications to be filed sequentially, but would allow for simultaneous review.
The bill also calls for a review of paperwork within three days of an application for involuntary hospitalization. It also sets up a strengthened process for mental health providers to request an expedited hearing on involuntary medication.
While the vote was lopsided, several senators said their own deliberations on whether to support or oppose the measure were not.
"I look at the scales, they're virtually balanced, and then a feather falls on one side," said Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, who ended up as one of the four no votes.
Among the most gripping testimony offered at a Jan. 31 public hearing came from Christina Schumacher of Essex, who said she had been involuntarily hospitalized after her estranged husband, 49-year-old Ludwig Schumacher, strangled their 14-year-old son, Gunnar, and then hanged himself Dec. 18. She said she was held five weeks before a judge ordered her released.
Without naming her, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, pointed to Schumacher as a case in which a faster judicial process would have helped the patient. He called her case "the most horrific example of why this bill is actually necessary." He said the "one surviving member" of the family "ended up being placed in an environment for which she could not have any legal redress for a period not days, but weeks."
"As she spoke to the committee it occurred to me, this is not a question of whether or not we involuntarily medicate someone; this is a question of how soon we can get someone recourse in the court system," Benning said.
One of the bill's most outspoken critics, Jack McCullough, director of Vermont Legal Aid's Mental Health Law Project, said after the vote that a big motivation for the bill was disarray in the state's mental health system since flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 forced the closure of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, leaving general hospitals struggling with an influx of psychiatric patients.