By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau
When the current legislative session started in January, there were no ambitious plans to create new beds for mental health patients, add mobile crisis teams or create new community resources to ease the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.
Despite years of reporting on the crisis and high-profile incidents going back to 2013, the most the state could muster was a 10-bed expansion at New Hampshire Hospital in 2016 that’s had little impact.
The year started with a modest proposal in HB 400, directing the department of Health and Human Services to develop a 10-year plan for mental health services in collaboration with the Legislature and key stakeholders. But on April 21, a hastily called press conference at Concord Hospital featured Gov. Chris Sununu promising a major mental health initiative, one that was not mentioned in his inaugural address or included in his budget.
Virtually overnight, HB 400 was amended to become the vehicle for a $20 million investment in new mental health beds, mobile crisis teams, data management systems and an independent evaluation of the current mental health system.
It was as if the governor and key lawmakers suddenly awoke to a crisis that had hung over the state for years. In their impassioned arguments for the funding in public forums and on the floor of the state Senate, they kept referring to their tour of the Concord Hospital emergency room.
Much of the credit for this surge in mental health funding goes to Bob Steigmeyer, CEO at Concord Hospital, who thought it was about time for policy-makers to see firsthand the growing problem in emergency rooms across the state.
“We reached out to the governor to come see the crisis firsthand,” says Steigmeyer. “There is no replacement for visually seeing this crisis, so we set up a series of what I would call tell and show.”
The exercise proved to be extremely effective, because afterward the problem was approached with an intensity and bipartisan fervor not frequently seen at the State House.
Amendments to HB 400, sponsored by Sens. Jeb Bradley and Chuck Morse, R-Salem (which also included provisions for reorganizing the Division for Children, Youth and Families) passed the Senate unanimously and were acceded to by the House in a voice vote.
“It’s easy to lose sight of the problem when we see a list of 20, 30, 40 or 50 people,” said Steve Ahnen, president of the N.H. Hospital Association. “We forget and have to keep reminding ourselves that each one of those people is a patient in crisis with a family, with friends, with loved ones, and that’s what they saw first-hand when they visited the emergency department for themselves.”