CONCORD – The state of mental health in New Hampshire was the subject of a lot of discussion and votes at the Executive Council Wednesday.
A late-item agenda was approved for $1.7 million in top salaries at the new Hampstead Hospital which will be the state’s new mental and behavioral health hospital exclusively for children.
The top annual salary for the CEO at Hampstead will be $165,280 a year.
The money, like that for the purchase of the hospital and its more than 100 acres, is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, the federal government’s COVID-19 relief fund.
Attracting leaders with really good salaries is critical, said Lori Shibinette, Commissioner of Health and Human Services, noting the state is now paying about 30 percent below the going rate. Shibinette said there are enough rising stars within the state to fill the jobs and she said there will be people there to support the purchase of this major, private facility, which was just approved several weeks ago.
“We have a very committed staff at Hampstead,” Shibinette said.
Gov. Chris Sununu said the state is actually now attracting more professionals in behavioral health because the state is upping its game on the issue. But he lamented, there is still a way to go. There are both children and adults waiting in emergency rooms for beds in behavioral care.
“We need more inpatient hospital beds,” Sununu said.
Shibinette agreed and said hopefully additional children’s beds will also be before the council soon.
“There is also the option for (more) community-based crisis care,” she said, adding that all options are important depending on the need of the child.
PORTSMOUTH BEHAVIORAL HEALTH HOSPITAL CONTRACT WITHDRAWN AGAIN
Funding for a new behavioral health hospital in Portsmouth was withdrawn again by the Department of Health and Human Services as details on the project are being worked out. At the last meeting, the contract was also on the agenda and withdrawn.
The plan is to accept American Rescue Plan Act funds in the amount of $15,015,000 which will be used to provide capital defrayment to Portsmouth Regional Hospital and its parent company, HCA Healthcare Inc., to develop a consolidated behavioral health hospital.
KEN NORTON HONORED
State mental health leader and innovator Ken Norton was honored by the governor and council. He is retiring as executive director of NAMI-NH.
Sununu said Norton over the years, has opened his mind and understanding to the complexity of issues related to mental health and he credited Norton for bringing the state along.
“The tone you set…your leadership through all the administrations has just been phenomenal,” the governor said.
Susan L. Stearns will now head up NAMI-NH.
Norton also gave credit to the governor for his appointments as commissioners and legislators who have worked in a bipartisan fashion to advance mental health issues across the state but noted as of Tuesday there were 27 adults waiting for beds in psychiatric units. He said he knows that change does not happen overnight and said rather than considering himself “retired” he uses the word “rewired.”
COVID-19 TEST KITS AT LIQUOR STORES
Sales of COVID-19 test kits at the liquor stores are going well and the administrative costs associated are five cents apiece, the Council was told.
It authorized a retroactive amendment to an existing memorandum of understanding with the NH Liquor Commission to sell them.
Councilor Cinde Warmington asked Shibinette a number of questions about how it was going. The kits are sold at a cost of about $12 each and the money will be reinvested for more tests if needed, Shibinette said.
She said she did not expect they would go bad with a six-month expiration date for 1 million test kits.
“It is just one more access point for people who want to test,” she said.
MOUNT SUNAPEE TROUBLES
Warmington asked for an update on Vail Corporation’s 20-year lease of Mount Sunapee ski area at the state park which has been facing huge lift lines and traffic backups, with some arguing Vail oversold season passes this year.
Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Union, said he has heard concerns as well from constituents.
The governor acknowledged there is a plan and that Vail’s customer service “stinks.”
Phil Bryce, head of state parks, said Commissioner of Natural and Cultural Resources Sarah Stewart was in touch with Newbury’s police chief who is pleased with the way things were after last weekend.
The state is putting out a traffic counter.
Warmington said there are also complaints of long waits at lift lines.
“Has the contractor oversold the mountain,” she asked Bryce.
Bryce said the terms in the agreement do not limit the number of passes sold.
“It does create…a poor experience for visitors, unfortunately, and that is part of their relationship with their customers,” said Bryce.
Warmington said they did use a reservation system last year due to COVID-19.
Sununu said he thinks there are long lift lines everywhere at other mountains.
Warmington stated, “We can’t wash our hands of it. It’s our mountain. Obviously, if there is a contract we might want to revisit terms.”
Bryce said he did not mean to imply that the state is not taking the overcrowding issue seriously at Mount Sunapee. He said he wanted to make a point that legally, the state could only do so much.
“The whole thing is compounded by not having enough people to work,” Bryce said of worker shortages.
Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, attending and voting remotely by phone from her home in Rye, asked about whether Vail discounted the Epic multi mountain season pass this fall. She wanted an additional follow-up on accounting.
She was told by Bryce the state’s auditor is going over to the mountain to approve their books to ensure that the numbers given to the state are accurate.
Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, said, “These are the quagmires we get into with public-private partnerships.”
Gatsas added as the state considers some for behavioral health that the fine print must be laid out.
Bryce said there are upcoming comment opportunities for the public and Sunapee skiers as the state has an advisory board.
PARDON HEARING REQUESTS DENIED
The council denied three pardon hearing requests.
One was from Corey Porter, 41, requesting a pardon hearing for the offense of theft.
Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, said Porter stole $72,000 recently and is not eligible for an annulment.
Also denied was Sheryl Ann Garside, 57, requesting a pardon hearing for the offense of felonious sexual assault.
The third denial came for Charles Beckley, 58, requesting a pardon hearing for the offense of manufacturing child sexual abuse images.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
In honor of black history month, Warmington began the meeting by reading the lyrics to the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).
Concord High School’s Kai Gaeta sang a number of pieces for the council. He attended with Ellen Nordstrom, his teacher, and his mom, Julie. He sang “Wait for It” and “At Last, I See the light.”
Sununu nominated two individuals as justices. They will have a public hearing on their nominations on March 9 starting at 1 p.m. at the State House.
He nominated Brian C. Shaughnessy of Bedford and Jacki A. Smith of Sharon to the Superior Court.
To the Community College Board of Trustees, the governor nominated Greg Eastman of Littleton.
Nathan Noyes was re-nominated for a second term as head of State Police
DIRECTOR OF MOTOR VEHICLES
The state has a new Director of Motor Vehicles. John Marasco of Hooksett was confirmed and he was given a hearty endorsement from Councilor Wheeler. He succeeds Elizabeth Bielecki of Bedford who resigned. His salary will be $114,166.
FINANCING FOR NON-PROFIT RETIREMENT COMMUNITY IN LONDONDERRY
Following a public hearing, the council approved a $200 million conduit bond with no state guarantees or funds to complete a new project for Baldwin Senior Living, including a memory care unit.
There would be 130 units added, said James Key Wallace, executive director of the state Business Finance Authority.
They are eligible for tax-exempt funding, he said.
Councilor Kenney said he would like to see more housing for the younger generation.
Stevens credited Wallace for bringing the project forward saying they have been pro-active against disease and smart to separate memory care into small units.
Gatsas asked Commissioner Shibinette to watch a six-series documentary on NETFLIX noting a for-profit company mentioned in it, Maximus Inc., does health care business with the state.
He said the “Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” brought many questions to his mind and perhaps a few tears.
It is about the 2013 murder and abuse of an eight-year-old boy from Palmdale, Calif.
Gatsas noted that there are similar issues to the case of the missing Harmony Montgomery.
“Be prepared when you watch that,” he warned “It’s very gut-wrenching. I had a tough time getting through it.”
He said he has received more calls about the Harmony Montgomery case than just about any other issue.
Gatsas asked to get information, “to see if we can’t find this little girl. Somebody has to know something.”
He said a key issue is communications between states.
“Governor, I applaud you for dropping a dime on the state of Massachusetts,” Gatsas said.
Massachusetts courts ruled to give custody to her father, a resident of New Hampshire with a troubling criminal history. Communication between the states has to improve, Gatsas said.
The governor shook his head in agreement with Gatsas.
Montgomery was last seen two years ago when she was five; there is a criminal investigation underway into the little girl’s whereabouts with a volunteer-pledged reward of $137,000 offered for information.
OPT-IN VERSUS OPT-OUT PROVISIONS FOR STATE VACCINE REGISTRY DISCUSSED
Kenney said New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die State” appreciates its privacy rights and would like to see an opt-in provision rather than an opt-out for the state’s nascent vaccine registry program.
The Legislature is discussing how to go with opt-in or opt-out but Sununu said it would likely lead to fewer in the registry to opt-in and thus, less useful data.
Trish Tilley, head of infectious diseases within DHHS agreed and noted Texas did an opt-in and had to go to opt-out. It also was more expensive, she said.
OVERTIME FOR CORRECTIONS
The council approved the transfer of $7,830,768 to reallocate appropriations and cover overtime shortfalls for the Department of Corrections.
The state is having a hard time staffing with retirements, illness, and recruiting issues although they have just approved funds for raises.