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Editorial: State needs a forensic hospital

Published: 4/7/2019 12:05:11 AM

This we know about New Hampshire: As long as the governor and Legislature refuse to raise the revenue necessary for the state to meet its obligations, some critical needs will go unmet.

New Hampshire’s chronic “structural deficit” forces different constituencies with legitimate claims to state support to compete for the funding they deserve.

The constituencies denied funding, chief among them the state’s struggling school districts, will continue to seek redress in the courts. The state will lose more cases than it wins.

Temporary solutions tend to be long-lasting.

The former Laconia State School, a collection of buildings on 400 acres overlooking Lake Winnisquam, was converted to a temporary prison in 1991 to meet a need for more space. It stayed open for 18 years.

Which brings us to the Secure Psychiatric Unit, or SPU, which was moved “temporarily” to the state prison for men in 1986. It houses, among inmates convicted of serious, violent crimes, a fluctuating number of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. They have, however, been diagnosed with a mental illness and deemed a threat to themselves or others and beyond the ability of the state hospital staff to control.

Though the psychiatric care of such inmates, and we call them what they are, is by most accounts more than adequate, their prison environment is not conducive to healing. It is also a hardship for families who know that their loved one is in a less than therapeutic environment and sometimes locked up for all but an hour or so each day.

We agree with Gov. Chris Sununu, Health Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, N.H. Hospital CEO Lori Shibinette and Rep. Renny Cushing, who has fought for years to move such patients out of the prison. The arm of the House Finance Committee that recently voted to delay construction pending more study is wrong. They are right. It’s time for the state to build a modern, secure psychiatric facility on the state hospital campus.

The committee apparently accepted the arguments of the Disability Rights Center, which advocates on behalf of those with mental illness among others, that the estimated $26 million a new 60-bed hospital would cost would be better spent on upgrading existing mental health facilities and increasing community mental health supports that might prevent the need for some hospitalizations.

Once again, a fight over scarce resources.

The goals of all parties are worthy but, as the governor said, “New Hampshire families have waited over 20 years for a solution.”

It’s time to act. New Hampshire is one of a few, and maybe the only state left, that still houses civilly committed people with mental illness in a penal institution instead of a hospital.

Constructing a true, non-prison, secure psychiatric hospital would achieve several important things, including almost certainly addressing at least one lawsuit over the potentially unconstitutional housing of people not convicted of a crime in a prison.

Most of all, it’s the right thing to do.

(Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the federal Medicaid program would pay half the cost of care for people transferred from the state prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit to a new forensic hospital. While some short-term federal funding might occur, absent a waiver that has not been requested such patients would not qualify for Medicaid assistance.)

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