Lawmakers, governor differ on mental health funding details

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Political leaders on all sides are prioritizing mental health funding in New Hampshire’s next budget, though differences remain in their approaches and appropriations.

There’s broad, bipartisan agreement that something must be done to address mental health patients languishing in emergency rooms — one of the most visible symptoms of the mental health system’s woes. But Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, the House and the Senate don’t all agree on the best way to alleviate the problem, which occurs when people seeking inpatient psychiatric care end up waiting in emergency departments for days or weeks at a time.

The budget proposed by Sununu and the version passed by the Democrat-controlled House would spend about $2 million on up to 30 designated receiving beds for mental health patients at hospitals to alleviate the problem. Meanwhile, the Senate, also controlled by Democrats, passed a budget that would spend $1 million on up to 10 beds in Cheshire and Sullivan counties. The Senate and Sununu, meanwhile, both want to build a stand-alone secure psychiatric unit to serve patients who are now held at the state prison, but they disagree about the capacity. Sununu proposed spending $26 million on a 60-bed facility, while the Senate proposed a 25-bed, $17.5 million facility.

The governor and Senate both would spend $5 million on 40 transitional beds for patients leaving the state psychiatric hospital, while the House would spend half that amount on half as many beds.

During last week’s late-night budget debate, Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley argued unsuccessfully in favor of funding up to 30 receiving beds. He warned against doing too little.

“If we don’t learn from that ... we are undermining the capacity we need to our get friends and neighbors with mental health issues out of emergency rooms and into appropriate care,” he said.

The Senate Democrats argued that the other measures — including funding the transitional beds — would free up more than enough room at New Hampshire Hospital.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeff Meyers said his department’s priorities include moving the children’s unit out of New Hampshire Hospital, building a 60-bed secure psychiatric unit and funding 40 transitional beds. All the competing proposals contain significant funding increases for services that are in keeping with the state’s needs and the department’s new 10-year mental health plan, he said.

“I think it’s an evolving conversation,” he said Tuesday. “It will get sorted out, but when you look at both budgets, and the governor’s budget as well, they have considerable increases in money appropriated for mental health services.”

Susan Stearns, deputy director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agreed.

While the organization supports the higher number of designated receiving beds, overall, Stearns said it was heartening to see strong support for addressing the emergency room boarding crisis.

“Our strongest wish is that we can avoid an impasse,” she said. “We have individuals and families in crisis, so our hope is the great bipartisan leadership we’ve seen on this issue will bring a resolution that will address those needs.”