New budget pact offers N.H. hope for more addiction treatment funding

  • Peter Evers, CEO of Riverbend Community Health, talks Thursday about the effect of dwindling mental health resources in the community and the impact it has on places like Concord Hospital. Elodie Reed

For the Monitor
Friday, February 09, 2018

Peter Evers said he’s seen decades of neglect when it comes to funding for mental health and addiction treatment.

On Friday, in the wake of a budget battle that was resolved in Washington in the early morning hours, the chief executive officer of Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord found some hope.

The massive 2-year budget deal passed by Congress included $6 billion in federal funding to help states fight the opioid epidemic, a sixfold increase over the current amount.

“I think people are paying attention,” Evers said. “You know, it’s about time.”

Riverbend’s the largest provider of mental health services in central New Hampshire.Evers, who also serves as vice president of behavioral health at Concord Hospital, spoke with the Monitor on Friday, moments after President Donald Trump signed the budget agreement into law, ending a brief overnight federal government shutdown. Some of the opioid epidemic federal funding could make its way to Riverbend.

“It’s always good news if that money comes down and gets to us,” Evers said. “Any money that’s earmarked for treatment is going to help.”

The $6 billion would be a large increase from the $1 billion of federal money for treatment, recovery, prevention, and law enforcement that is currently being divvied up among the 50 states and territories through the 21st Century Cures Act.

“I think this is a significant increase. It’s six times more than we got in the 21st Century Cures Act. It’s a very good down payment,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Thursday.

While the $6 billion is a big boost, it’s far less than the $25 billion that Shaheen and Sen. Maggie Hassan proposed last month.

“We know it’s going to take even greater investment to truly turn the tide of this epidemic and beat it, but this increase in funding would be a really important first step,” Hassan said.

New Hampshire’s been hard hit by the drug crisis. According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has the third-highest rate of death from a drug overdose per capita (39 per 100,000), behind West Virginia and Ohio.

In November, New Hampshire’s two Democratic senators introduced a bill that would require the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to factor in a state’s mortality rates and lack of access to treatment and services when allocating targeted grants.

The current process allocates the grants based on the raw number of people in each state with substance abuse disorders, rather than number of overdose deaths per capita. As a result, states with larger populations get a bigger slice of funding than smaller states that are particularly hard hit. New Hampshire – which has seen record numbers of drug overdose deaths the past three years – has been allocated $6.2 million to fight the drug crisis, but to date only half of those funds have been appropriated by Congress.

Shaheen and Hassan said they’ve received assurances that as part of the overall agreement, the opioid federal funding formula will be altered to be more favorable to states like New Hampshire, which is nearly double the national rate for overdose deaths.

“It is critical that the new federal dollars are prioritized for states like New Hampshire that have been hardest hit,” Hassan said.

Rep. Annie Kuster, the three-term Democrat who represents New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District, said she’s “pleased this budget provides billions in critical resources for those on the frontlines of this crisis.”

One of those people on the frontlines is Evers.

He said Riverbend has expanded significantly over the past year and is now involved with the drug court set up last year in Merrimack County. The program has spread across the state and allows non-violent repeat drug offends to be offered treatment rather than jail time.

But Evers acknowledged there’s much more than needs to be done, and more federal funds could only help.

“We talk about expanding all the time because of the demand,” he explained. “The volume of people who come through drug court is huge.”