AP NEWS

Sununu defends idea for stand-alone secure psychiatric unit

April 2, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday defended his proposal for a stand-alone secure psychiatric unit, insisting he’s not battling for his budget but trying to be a voice for families.

Sununu, a Republican, has proposed spending $26 million on a 60-bed facility for mental health patients who haven’t committed crimes but are held in prison because they are deemed too dangerous for treatment at the state psychiatric hospital.

But in crafting their budget, House Democrats argued that more planning is necessary before committing to construction. They focused instead on transitional housing beds for people leaving the state mental hospital, early intervention programs and a mobile crisis team for children.

Sununu responded with a news conference Tuesday at Concord Hospital, considered “ground zero” for people waiting for days in emergency departments for psychiatric care due to its proximity to the state hospital. He was joined by hospital officials, state agency heads and Republican state senators who urged Democrats to reverse course.

“This is about us standing here and just being a voice for these families who have asked for action now. To be honest, they asked for action years ago, and they deserved it,” he said. “So when we hear folks in Concord say, ‘It’s too soon?’ It’s 20 years too late, for goodness sake. It’s really time to get on the ball and make sure these families have a voice.”

The state, he said, is facing an unprecedented crisis that demands action that rebuilds the state’s treatment infrastructure.

“Can you cite an instance in history when we’ve had a crisis of this level with families that are sitting the hallways of this very building being warehoused, maintained for days, weeks on end?” he said. “So yes, are we taking drastic measures? You bet we are. Are we taking the right measures? Undoubtedly.”

Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, called Sununu’s a thoughtful and well-considered approach that supports the state’s new 10-year mental health plan. Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, echoed Sununu’s attempt to take politics out of the debate.

“We can talk about income taxes, we can talk about capital gains taxes, we can talk about raising business taxes, but this is about people. That’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We’re letting the public down today by voting on anything less than what the governor proposed because these are real people right now who are sitting in hospitals that can’t transition anywhere right now.”

While Democrats and some mental health advocates say renovating existing space at the state hospital would be a better move, supporters of Sununu’s plan argue that there isn’t enough room even once the children’s unit is moved elsewhere as planned. And they say the target population requires a significantly different environment and staff.

Critics argue that the building will divert money and workforce from where they are most needed — community-based mental health services that help people avoid hospitalization.

“The governor should work with us on lowering the need for new admissions in the first place, which we can accomplish through funding for community health efforts,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

Sununu said that while he supports adding more mobile crisis teams, doing so now doesn’t make sense when the workforce isn’t there to staff them and the state got no bidders the last time it tried to create one.

But Michael Skibbie, the center’s policy director, said the stand-alone facility would strain the state’s workforce significantly more than mobile crisis teams or some of the other community-based services, and said the state should put out contracts for mobile crisis teams with provider rates that are high enough to attract bidders.

“It’s understandable that everybody wants to waive around the tragedy of the emergency room waiting population, and we absolutely are outraged about that. But, you don’t need to solve the problem multiple times. You need to solve the problem once. And you don’t need to solve it through a forensic hospital because just by moving the kids out, you’ve solved that problem,” he said.

“If you want to go ahead and solve your secure psychiatric unit problem,” he said, “we think they ought to at least be willing to carefully consider whether they can solve that problem within the walls of New Hampshire Hospital.”

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This story has been corrected to show the existing unit is at the state prison, not the state hospital.