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Mental health advocates call for $38 million in state budget

New Hampshire’s 10 community mental health centers called on state lawmakers yesterday to put an additional $37.6 million in their next two-year budget to improve care for the mentally ill.

It’s a steep request that legislative leaders doubt can be wholly fulfilled, given the competing demands on the budget, including a new women’s prison and more money for the state’s universities. But mental health experts said yesterday the amount – $18.8 million for each of the next two years – is necessary to rescue a mental health care system “in crisis.”

Jay Couture, president of the New Hampshire Behavioral Health Association, said the budget request would bring the state up to date on the 10-year mental health plan adopted – but never funded – in 2008. This budget request would pay for the additional residential beds, community treatment services and in-patient beds that were called for in that 2008 plan, Couture said.

“I certainly understand that times continue to be challenging,” she said yesterday when asked how she expected lawmakers to receive this request. “But I’m cautiously optimistic. I think lawmakers and the general public are certainly recognizing that the needs of those with mental illness need to be addressed. We cannot continue to put off such critical services.”

The mental health centers are asking for money to build new community group homes and for the money for staff to care for patients. They also want 12 additional “crisis” beds in the state and up to 48 additional beds for mental health patients in area hospitals. The centers also want money to increase the number of “Assertive Community Treatment” teams across the state to respond quickly to a person in crisis with hopes they can remain in their communities.

Some of the requests overlap with those Commissioner Nick Toumpas recently said he will make to the Legislature when he delivers his budget for the Department of Health and Human Services. In late December, Toumpas, who could not be reached by deadline yesterday, said he will ask lawmakers for $10 million to improve mental health care in the state.

Yesterday’s challenge from the community mental health centers came a month after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., where the shooter’s mental health is being questioned. And they came a week after the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness held a press conference in Concord to highlight the shortage of available beds at New Hampshire Hospital.

Ken Norton, executive director of the state chapter of NAMI, said then that it’s not uncommon for people suffering a mental health crisis to spend several days in hospital emergency rooms waiting for a state hospital bed.

The budget request also coincides with a tour interested lawmakers will take tomorrow of Riverbend Community Mental Health Center in Concord.

The challenge for Couture and her colleagues won’t be convincing state lawmakers that mental health care falls short of the demands on it. It will be persuading them to find the money to rectify that.

The governor’s office received an advance copy of yesterday’s release from the state’s mental health centers.

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s spokesman responded to a request for comment:

“Gov. Hassan believes that the state of our mental health system is a pressing challenge and thanks those seeking to help our citizens who are in need of care,” Marc Goldberg said in a press release. “The governor is currently working to bring people together to make the difficult decisions needed to balance the budget while protecting New Hampshire’s priorities, including providing access to mental health and health care services. She thanks the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association for their advocacy and looks forward to working with them and other stakeholders to continue improving the health of all Granite Staters.”

Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat who serves on the committee, wasn’t optimistic that the next budget will have all that Couture has asked.

“The gravity of the mental health situation has been brought to my attention by my mental health center in Manchester,” D’Allesandro said. “But there’s no way that kind of money (can be found) over that period of time without some serious revenue enhancements.”

D’Allesandro said the competition for limited state money is fierce. He cited the request to restore money for the Children in Need of Services program and the need to build a new women’s prison, given that the state is being sued over the conditions of the existing one. The Legislature has not decided whether to expand Medicaid services, and lawmakers are waiting to see if the state wins or loses a federal lawsuit brought by the state’s hospitals.

“Add mental health care to that mix, and you’ve got an enormous amount of activity that’s going to make demands on the fiscal integrity of the state,” D’Allesandro said.

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, agreed. She said yesterday the Newtown shootings and previous tragedies linked to mental illness have “heightened all our awareness.”

“But it’s a tight budget,” she said. Wallner said it’s premature for her to make any predictions about what budget resources will be available to any state agency or community. All she knows now is that mental health care will be part of the conversation.

“From the people I talk to, I think people are very much wanting to look at mental health and what we are doing for New Hampshire citizens,” she said. “I know from my own experience, there is really a lack of services available and families need help.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, at
atimmins@cmonitor.com� or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

Forget about the area hospitals. They need to re-open the factory on Pleasant St. in Concord. There are far too many nuts walking around these days.

Let's see what kind of "leadership" we have: one that prioritizes political pledges or one that finally puts people in NH first. If this ain't a test, I don't know what is.

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