Bill overhauling N.H.’s mental health system, DCYF headed to state Senate

  • New Hampshire Hospital in Concord as seen on Tuesday, July 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Thursday, May 04, 2017

A bill tasked with overhauling New Hampshire’s mental health system and child protective services now has a price tag attached to it.

The Office of Legislative Budget Assistant estimates it will cost $9.27 million in state general funds in fiscal year 2018 and another $10.19 million the following year to add 68 mental health beds around New Hampshire and beef up oversight and staff for the state’s embattled Division for Children, Youth and Families.

The bill was unanimously passed with amendment by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. It was recently introduced by Republican lawmakers in response to a lack of mental health beds across the state and problems at DCYF.

These have proved to be significant issues for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services; a lack of community mental health beds and limited space at New Hampshire Hospital has created a backlog of patients who are waiting in emergency rooms for a bed to open up. Meanwhile, DCYF has come under fire from advocates and state lawmakers after two toddlers were killed by parents whom the agency had investigated for abuse.

“Amending this legislation to provide additional mental health beds across the state and establishing greater oversight at DCYF is a great start to address two pressing issues at the Department of Health and Human Services,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, said in a statement.

The largest chunk of money lawmakers are requesting is for 68 new beds for mental health patients.

Lawmakers and state officials are also looking for ways to free up more beds at the state psychiatric hospital.

An updated version of the bill also calls on Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers to create a plan to remove 24 children from New Hampshire Hospital and move them elsewhere as they continue receiving care.

“These youths are widely varying in ages, so it’s inappropriate to put two in the same room,” Bradley said. “If the youths were able to be moved successfully, it would free 24 beds, so there would be 48 beds for adults.”

Meyers is tasked with creating the plan by November and has already started talking to outside groups about housing and care for the children.

“I’m talking to a number of providers,” Meyers said. “Those conversations are continuing.”

Last week, Meyers said he plans to seek $3 million to start planning and drawing up designs for a new children’s unit at New Hampshire Hospital. The commissioner said Tuesday that the plan is still in the works.

“There really are no other options to expand capacity at New Hampshire Hospital,” he said.

Meyers said he was happy to see the bill pass committee and head to the full Senate.

“There’s obviously a significant issue in New Hampshire,” he said. “All of the mental health measures in the bill will address some of the gaps.”

The bill’s passage in committee won praise from New Hampshire Hospital Association President Steve Ahnen, who commended Senate leaders, Meyers and Gov. Chris Sununu for their commitment to reform.

“Hospitals remain committed to working collaboratively with stakeholders across the state to address this issue from a systems perspective,” Ahnen said.

The bill also contains significant reforms to DCYF, adding a new office of child advocate and transferring the DCYF legal director to the state Department of Justice, rather than the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Office of the Child Advocate would provide outside oversight of DCYF, with access to some of the agency’s records and the ability to subpoena witnesses. DCYF would be required to immediately report any child death to the office, which would submit an annual report on the agency to lawmakers.

The bill would also create an oversight commission tasked with analyzing the effectiveness of DCYF’s programs. It would make the head of DCYF an assistant health commissioner who must be approved by the Executive Council for a four-year term.

Senate President Chuck Morse called the legislation “long overdue.”

“It is imperative that we live within our means, but protecting children and those suffering from mental illness must always be a top priority,” Morse said.

(Material from Associated Press was used in this report. Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter