State in the process of buying Hampstead Hospital, a provider of mental health care for children

By: - October 14, 2021 6:34 pm
A sign outside of Hampstead Hospital

The $15.1 million does not include salaries or other operating costs. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The state is in the final stages of purchasing the 111-bed Hampstead Hospital, which it has used throughout the pandemic to provide children in mental health crisis inpatient psychiatric care. It will remain a treatment facility for children, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said.

The price has not been determined, Gov. Chris Sununu said, but will be paid for with federal recovery money and needs the approval of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and Executive Council. They could get a contract by the end of the year, Shibinette said.

Sununu made the announcement on the grounds of the hospital Thursday as 18 children waited in emergency rooms across the state for a treatment bed to open up. Since the start of the pandemic, that number has reached 50 and typically hovers between 20 and 35. Some families wait days, even weeks, for a bed, an excruciating experience they say exacerbates the crisis. 

Like the price, many details remain unknown, including programming, what expanded services may include, and staffing beyond a plan to keep on current employees. That last one will be a particular challenge and one that must be solved if the state hopes to not only buy a hospital but actually expand the availability of care.

Throughout the pandemic, the hospital has been unable to use about 70 of its 111 beds because it has enough staff for only about 40, Hampstead Hospital Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Collins said. Sununu acknowledged the challenge.

“You can have the greatest programs in the world, but if you don’t have the individuals, the amazing individuals that provide those services, it’s not going to matter,” he said. 

Even with many details to be determined, the announcement was welcomed by NAMI NH and the state’s 10 community mental health centers, which have been advocating for expanded mental health services for children and adults for decades. 

“For the state to take action​,​ to try to take some control of this situation, I have to think is a positive move,” said Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI NH. “What’s been happening up to this point​ hasn’t been successful. We welcome any attempt to address the current crisis that we are in. What’s been happening up to this point is that children are suffering a lot.” 

Brian Collins, president of the Community Behavioral Health Association, which includes the 10 mental health centers, said there is an acute need in the state for a children’s mental health treatment center. 

“The announcement of this major investment in children’s mental health and a dedicated facility is a major milestone in our system and for our children,” he said in a statement. “The Community Behavioral Health Association … supports this effort, and we are committed to working with the governor’s office, the commissioner of Health and Human Services, and legislative leaders to ensure that our new children’s hospital is successful.”

The hospital currently has one adult unit and two children’s units. It is not yet clear whether the adult patients would remain or be transferred to another facility. The priority, Shibinette said, will be caring for children, who often need longer stays of one to two months. But people ages 18 to 25 may also be treated at the site. 

With about 100 acres surrounding the hospital, Shibinette and Sununu said expansion is possible and even likely. 

The state has made several new investments in mental health with a goal of expanding access to treatment since May, when Sununu issued an executive order directing Shibinette to identify gaps and use federal aid to close them. Those investments have included a statewide mobile crisis unit, which hasn’t yet launched; expanded transitional housing; and more inpatient treatment beds at nursing homes and hospitals. 

“Band-Aids and short-term solutions are not going to cut it for the people of our state,” Sununu said Thursday.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]