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Staffing changes begin at New Hampshire Hospital

  • A common room in the New Hampshire Hospital's remodeled J3 wing is seen on Friday, June 7, 2013. The hospital will open new beds on Monday, June 10, 2013. Taehoon Kim



Monitor staff
Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dr. Matthew Davis turned in his badge, pager and keys before walking out the door of the state psychiatric hospital for the last time Thursday.

He and 10 other psychiatrists and advanced nursing staff will not return to work at New Hampshire Hospital today, having been laid off amid a months long labor dispute spurred by a change in employer.

While the friction has cast hospital operations and patient care into question, Dartmouth-Hitchcock says it has qualified replacements ready.

The organization is taking over the state contract from Dartmouth College today to staff the hospital. The workers will be a mix of current hospital staff and psychiatrists pulled from other areas of Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“We take our responsibility for patient care seriously, and we are committed to meeting the challenge of the mental health crisis in New Hampshire,” said spokesman Rick Adams.

The state sent a letter to hospital leaders Thursday assuring them psychiatric services will continue “uninterrupted.” Most of the staff at New Hampshire Hospital are state employees, but roughly 20 psychiatrists, advanced-level nurses and administrators work there under the contract.

“Moving forward, patient units at New Hampshire hospital will be appropriately staffed,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers wrote.

But those leaving say the transition will threaten patient care.

“It’s unprecedented to have so many brand new people coming in at once,” said Dr. Bob Murray, one of the outgoing psychiatrists. “What it means for patient is that people are going to be assuming their care who are not well orientated with the hospital.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock will temporarily pull “a small number of providers” from its practice in Lebanon to help staff New Hampshire Hospital. Adams declined to name exactly how many mental health workers would be reassigned, but said 12 of the 21 beds in the inpatient psychiatric unit in Lebanon will remain open. Nine will be temporarily unavailable. 

Nine of the current hospital psychiatric staff signed on to work for Dartmouth-Hitchcock and will remain.

The other 11 are leaving, and said that Dartmouth-Hitchcock refused to negotiate terms of employment and proposed reduced time off and retirement in its benefit packages. Davis said the outgoing psychiatrists were not given any information about what would happen in the future.

“I don’t know how someone in charge could think this is a better plan for patient care, than retaining the current staff who only ever wanted to stay,” he said.

The labor dispute is the latest obstacle for New Hampshire Hospital, which has faced a nursing shortage in recent months and had to delay the opening of a new 10-bed crisis unit. The unit, which was completed last July, is set to launch Tuesday. It is meant to ease pressure on emergency rooms, where patients often wait for a bed to open up at New Hampshire Hospital.

The state-run hospital usually has a long wait list. And patients are often admitted to the 158-bed hospital involuntarily because they’re experiencing serious mental health issues.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock is staffing the hospital after the Executive Council approved a four-month contract extension last month.

The state has yet to award the full five-year contract. But Dartmouth-Hitchcock is the only organization in the running to take over from Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine, which has had the contract since the 1980s.

The extension gives the state time to re-bid the deal if Dartmouth-Hitchcock can’t meet the terms, Meyers said. The contract also provides physicians at the Sununu Youth Services Center and Glencliff Home.

Some councilors raised concern with labor practices at issue in the dispute. And after the vote, all five executive councilors wrote a letter urging the department to reopen the bidding process. It’s not clear whether or when that could happen.

Larger transition

The staffing issues at New Hampshire Hospital are the product of a larger reorganization at Giesel that has shifted medical school employees to Dartmouth-Hitchcock payrolls.

The medical school laid off the hospital staff effective June 30. And Dartmouth-Hitchcock rescinded its employment offers to the group of 11 psychiatrists, Davis said, when they refused to sign letters of intent pledging to work for the health care provider. Davis said the letters contained no details about the offer.

Others disagree.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock has made what I believe was fair and reasonable offer, that matched the salaries we were earning before,” said Dr. C. Burleson Daviss in a statement. “Most of those in my group are hopeful that things will work out just fine for us in the long run.”

(This post has been updated. Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com)