PORTSMOUTH — Providers could be moving forward with a 10-year plan to offer additional and needed mental-health services if not for Gov. Chris Sununu's June 28 veto of the state budget, said Democratic officials, during a Tuesday press conference at Seacoast Mental Health.
State Sens. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, and Tom Sherman, D-Rye, were joined at the press event by Rep. Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, and Jay Couture, executive director of Seacoast Mental Health. They urged about 20 SMH employees in attendance to contact Sununu and urge him to pass the proposed budget with $90 million in business taxes they said would fund the 10-year mental health plan.
Fuller Clark said the plan would fund "the emergency room boarding crisis and Medicaid provider reimbursement rates" while Sununu "is holding New Hampshire back from making critical progress on issues like the mental health crisis." Sherman said the budget veto locks in a "sharp drop in Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health patients, which puts not only the mental health of the people of New Hampshire at risk, but the fiscal health of mental health centers at risk, too."
"Right now, New Hampshire can't afford another round of tax breaks," Lovejoy said. "We've already cut taxes from 8.5% to 7.9%, but we cannot address the crises facing New Hampshire, including the mental health crisis, if we continue to cut taxes." Lovejoy told Seacoast Media Group that polled businesses reported tax rates are not among the top five reasons considered when evaluating states' business climates.
Following the press conference, Sununu's spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said, "Governor Sununu has supported and implemented more mental health services and programs than any other governor in the past 25 years."
As examples, he cited Sununu's endorsement of "two major pieces of legislation" (HB400 and SB11) which include "20 new designated receiving facility beds for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis." Vihstadt said the legislation also supports "40 new beds of supported housing and community residences for individuals transitioning from New Hampshire Hospital and designated receiving facilities to the community, an additional mobile crisis unit, apartments and a new system to triage inpatient psychiatric bed availability."
Vihstadt said it includes $4.4 million in funding to create "new designated receiving facility beds and $1 million for reimbursement rates for designated receiving facility beds and voluntary admissions. He said $2.1 million was approved for "supported housing to enable discharge of patients, which will free up more beds for incoming patients," rate increases and mobile crisis teams.
"On top of those major indicatives, he found funding for a new 60-bed forensic facility that would have transformed our mental health system, only to be shot down by the same individuals holding the press conference today," Vihstadt said.
Couture said during Tuesday's media event the mental health system has been underfunded for many years. She said New Hampshire's Medicaid rate is "not on par with" the national average and that affects SMH's ability to hire and retain staff. She said the Portsmouth mental-health provider has a 20% turnover rate which means less consistency in treatment and sometimes not helping people in a timely manner. She said she has 15 to 18 clinical staff vacancies at a time and while a Medicaid rate increase had bipartisan support at the policy level, the budget veto delays implementation.
Lovejoy, who serves on the House Finance Committee, said budget writers followed Sununu's "roadmap to common ground," conceded some Democratic priorities like paid family leave, but did not adopt the line the governor included saying, "no change to business tax."
"We can't fund the 10-year mental health plan without that $90 million" in business taxes, she said.
Lovejoy told the group she'll be back at a negotiating table and warned, "We cannot cut from this budget the 10-year mental health plan."
Sherman urged the SMH staff to contact the governor's office.
"These vetoes have a direct impact," he said. "Please be an advocate for your patients outside your office."
Vihstadt noted that when HB400 was passed in 2017, Kenneth Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, credited Sununu with being "the catalyst which brought all this together" by asking questions, "then took action."