Senate gives initial nod to psychiatric boarding bill

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A proposal aimed at preventing mental health patients from languishing in emergency rooms won preliminary approval Thursday in the New Hampshire Senate.

The bill sent to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday would spend $6 million of the state surplus to encourage the construction of hospital psychiatric units by doubling the state’s reimbursement rate for designated receiving beds and subsidizing hospital renovation costs. The 16-8 vote, with two Republicans joining Democrats to advance the bill, came after the Senate rejected an amendment that would have spent significantly less on so-called designated receiving beds but would have added money for mobile crisis teams that could help patients avoid emergency rooms.

The average number of adults waiting in emergency departments for inpatient psychiatric admission each day has quadrupled to more than 40 in the last six years. On Thursday, there were 43 adults and seven children waiting around the state, according to the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“If you walk into an emergency room with the life-threatening illness of depression with suicidal ideation, you are deemed unsafe to send home, you’re held against our will in a small room in the back of the emergency room, maybe with a window ... for days, weeks, or in some cases even over a month,” said Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s unconscionable, it’s cruel and its malpractice to leave someone with a life-threatening illness untreated or untreated for weeks.”

Sherman, a physician, said his bill was not meant to address all of the many factors that contribute to the problem, such as workforce shortages in the mental health industry or insufficient community-based outpatient care. But he said lawmakers can’t wait until June, when they finalize the next state budget, to act.

“This was never intended to be a long term solution. This is intended to today, start the process of stopping harm to our families, friends and neighbors with an allocation of money that we have,” he said.

Republicans accused Democrats of rushing the bill along without proper vetting. Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, whose floor amendment was rejected, ended up joining fellow Republican John Reagan in voting to advance the bill, but he said he hoped the Finance Committee would seriously consider his proposal.

“You can’t have an approach that deals with an emergency situation by only dealing with part of the situation — beds in hospitals. If we don’t fund a mobile crisis unit or a stationary unit, we’re not solving the problem, we’re just pushing it in one direction,” said Bradley, of Wolfeboro.

Bradley said he based the dollar amounts in his bill on the 10-year mental health plan recently developed by the state Department of Health and Human Services. But Sherman said the numbers in his bill also came from the department.