N.H. Fiscal Policy Institute conference ponders workforce issues

  • Jeff Fuhrer, executive vice president and senior policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, speaks to a crowd at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute's annual conference in Concord on Friday, Jan. 14, 2017. NICK REID—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, January 13, 2017

Health care, child care and the coming wave of retirees dominated discussion Friday at a conference focused on how to strengthen the state’s workforce and economy.

With fewer outsiders moving to the state, rising childhood poverty and skill gaps in the workforce, New Hampshire will have to adapt to a different-looking future, said Katie Merrow, the vice president of community impact for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, during the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute’s annual conference in Concord.

“The ground has changed,” she said. “We need to change our behavior or we will not maintain the economy and the healthy communities that we’ve been known for and cherished here in New Hampshire.”

Panelists said the state’s decision to expand Medicaid has proven helpful on one key issue: the coverage and cost of health care, which is among the most expensive in the country.

Although the percentage of residents without health insurance is low compared with other states, the cost of care sometimes prohibits regular trips to the doctor even for insured patients, resulting in emergencies that could have been prevented, the panelists said.

About 30 percent of residents reported having trouble paying medical bills, said Jo Porter, the director of the University of New Hampshire Institute of Health Policy and Practice.

That has been helped by the $785 million the state has drawn from the federal government since it expanded Medicaid in 2014 through the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, said Lori Shibinette, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although 51,000 people currently receive health insurance through the program, more than 107,000 people have benefited at one time or another, she said.

“What that should tell you is people are using that program very appropriately,” Shibinette said. “They’re coming on the program, and when they get back on their feet, they’re coming off the program, which is exactly what we like to see.”

Beyond residents’ happiness, proper health care also makes for a more reliable workforce, the panelists said.

Another economic reality that can keep people from working is the cost and availability of child care. In some cases, parents who want to work are forced to stay home with their children because there are no quality child care centers near them – or they can’t afford to enroll their children, panelists said.

Marjorie Droppa, the director of Impact Monadnock, said her organization has set out to tackle bleak circumstances in her community by emphasizing the importance of investing in early childhood education.

“The first step to producing globally competitive adults is to produce school-ready 5-year-olds,” she said.

But she understands why it’s impossible for many families to get their 3- and 4-year-old a quality education.

“It’s hard to make the case for our parents to do more, when in Cheshire County, for example, they’re already spending on child care what they’re spending on housing costs each year,” she said.

At the other end of the education spectrum, panelists discussed the need for schools to develop students with the skills that businesses want.

Beth Doiron, the director of college access programs for the community college system, said thousands of students at 101 high schools earned college credits at a discounted rate while working toward their high school diplomas. On the computer science track at Dover and Portsmouth high schools, for instance, high schoolers can graduate with 12 of 18 credits needed for a related certificate.

But panelists said opportunities like these need to expand further around the state to continue improving the workforce. That’s especially true given the slowed migration of residents from Massachusetts and New Hampshire’s status as one of the oldest states in the country, with retirement looming for many workers.

To illustrate that reality, Amanda Grappone Osmer, the owner of the Grappone Automotive Group, said 30 percent of her workers would be 60 or older by 2025.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)