House Democrat budget-writers remove funding for psychiatric hospital construction

Monitor staff
Published: 4/1/2019 6:07:36 PM

Top members of the New Hampshire House are moving to reject a plan by Gov. Chris Sununu to construct a state-run secure psychiatric hospital, opting instead to renovate New Hampshire Hospital to take in higher-need patients.

A budget proposal crafted by State House Democrats and revealed Monday would remove a provision proposed by Sununu to create a $26 million, 60-bed hospital by June 2021.

That facility, announced with fanfare, was presented as a means to address about two dozen mental health patients who are currently held in the Secure Psychiatric Unit in the men’s state prison in Concord. But Democrats said the idea was not ready for prime time, and argued the money could be better spent remodeling the facilities the state already has.

“We thought it was probably too soon to construct a new 60 bed forensic unit,” said Finance Division III Chairwoman Sharon Nordgren, a Hanover Democrat. “I think we thought there needed to be a lot more planning.”

The move, part of a budget set to be voted on in the House Finance Committee, prompted immediate backlash from the governor’s office. And it landed on a laundry list of divisions between the Republican governor and the Democratically-controlled House.

“New Hampshire families have waited over 20 years for a solution and it is unconscionable that House Democratic leadership is now telling them that it is ‘too soon’ to move forward with this solution,” Sununu said.

The decision also comes after a heated debate between the top official at New Hampshire Hospital and the state’s Disability Rights Center over how best to address the state’s mental health crisis.

In a March 21 letter to the Finance committee, the Center said creation of a 60-bed secure facility would make it “likely that significant numbers of (New Hampshire) residents would be involuntarily hospitalized unnecessarily.” And it said the 60 extra beds for secure psychiatric patients exceeds the number needed.

On an average day, around 25 high-risk patients in the Secure Psychiatric Unit are civilly committed, the Center said. But only around a half dozen were involuntarily transferred from New Hampshire Hospital and not ordered directly by a court, according to the Center, which cited February figures from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead of a new hospital, the Center argued, funds should be focused on community mental health efforts to lower the need for new admissions in the first place, and for moving children out of the New Hampshire Hospital to make space to house the SPU patients there.

In a sharply-worded response letter also sent to the Finance committee, New Hampshire Hospital CEO Lori Shibinette pushed back. Accommodating all levels of psychiatric treatment would require a 60-bed facility, Shibinette said, something she argued that New Hampshire Hospital was not equipped for.

The tentative plan for that 60-bed facility drawn up by the Department of Health and Human Services was formed through a “thorough, public and collaborative process” over two years, Shibinette said.

Meanwhile, Shibinette continued, the Center’s preferred alternatives – most of which were implemented by the House Democrats – were a “stop gap measure at best” and “would do absolutely nothing to help people in hospital emergency departments for a bed in a psychiatric facility.”

“It is time for us to return to being pioneers,” she said, referring to the psychiatric hospital plan. “We need to stop trying to fit this population into a system of care that does not meet their needs.”

The Democrats’ plan would set aside $5 million to relocate the children in New Hampshire Hospital’s 24-bed children’s unit in another facility, and $4 million to outfit the space for a secure unit within New Hampshire hospital. Plans for that renovation would be informed by a year-long advisory council.

The plan is set to be presented to the full Finance committee on Wednesday. The committee will vote on the overall budget proposal Thursday, with the full House set for a vote April 11.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at ( 603) 369-3307, or on Twi tter at @edewittNH.)




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