Health and Human Services withdraws vaccine contracts; department seeking alternative funding

By: - October 19, 2021 4:51 pm
Lori Shibinette at a lectern

Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, requested the two contracts for $27 million be removed from the fiscal committee agenda Tuesday in a one-page letter that did not explain her request. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated Oct. 21, 2021 at 5 p.m. after the governor’s office said the state was requesting to use $4.7 million, not $4.6 million, in alternative federal funding.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has withdrawn the $27 million in federal contracts for vaccination outreach that have so riled anti-vaccine opponents, their protests shut down one Executive Council meeting and led to nine of them being arrested at the last meeting. 

But the department is not abandoning its vaccine plans. Spokesman Jake Leon said the department will bring forward a request to use alternative funding for part of the work in the coming weeks. 

The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee was to take up the contracts at its meeting Friday. 

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat who sits on the fiscal committee, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette hopes to use $4.7 million of an American Rescue Plan grant that does not include language in the current contracts that opponents argue would require the state to follow all federal COVID-19 orders, including a vaccine mandate. (Attorney General John Formella’s legal analysis disputing that reading had not convinced opponents.)

It is unclear what part of the vaccine outreach program Shibinette is seeking to pursue with the alternative funding, but one of the contracts she had pulled would have spent about $4.5 million to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccines with partner agencies and hire a public health program manager to oversee the planning and implementation of the state’s vaccine confidence strategy, routine immunizations, and coordination of the state’s public health response efforts.

The contract representing the rest of the $27 million in funding would have created a dozen new temporary positions to boost the state’s lagging vaccination rate and prepare for an anticipated surge in vaccine demand once the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children ages 5 to 11. 

Shibinette had told members of both bodies the money is critical, especially as existing federal grants are set to expire Dec. 31.

Shibinette requested the two contracts for $27 million be removed from the agenda Tuesday in a one-page letter to the committee that did not explain her request. 

“Department leadership is committed to exploring all potential funding streams to ensure that the people of New Hampshire have easy and convenient access to the vaccines,” Leon said in an email.

Shibinette and Gov. Chris Sununu, who has publicly supported the contracts, have received intense backlash since the funding requests first went before the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee in mid-September. The fiscal committee voted to table them over discredited claims about the vaccine’s efficacy. And following that vote, the committee’s then-chair, Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, circulated an outlandish report to members claiming without evidence octopus-like creatures live in the vaccine. He resigned his leadership position a few days later under pressure from Sununu and Democrats. 

The Executive Council was unable to vote on the contracts at its Sept. 29 meeting because anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine mandate protesters succeeded in shutting down the meeting by refusing to yield the floor to councilors. When councilors took up the contracts last week, they voted them down, 4-1, along party lines with many of the same protesters looking on. The police arrested nine members of that group who refused orders to watch the meeting quietly, without disruption.

Rosenwald said she was upset to see the contracts pulled from the agenda.

“The Legislature has a responsibility to the people of this state to protect and ensure public health in New Hampshire,” she said. “Gov. Sununu needs to take the reins and finally put a stop to this circus going on within his own party. People’s lives literally hang in the balance. Once again we are seeing dangerous misinformation override science, common sense, and the strong work of his own public health experts.”

Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, the council’s lone Democrat and the only one to vote for the contracts, has been working with the federal delegation to find alternative sources of funding for the defeated contracts.

“It is incredibly disappointing that the commissioner of Health and Human Services has been put in this situation as a result of the Republican executive councilors rejecting $27 million in federal aid to combat COVID-19,” Warmington said. “While I applaud Commissioner Shibinette for quickly replacing part of these missing resources with $4.6 million of (American Rescue Plan) funds, this ultimately makes it more difficult to put the pandemic behind us. Unfortunately, this substitution will reduce funding for other important public health initiatives and harm our state’s most vulnerable citizens.”

A spokesman for Sununu could not be immediately reached for comment. At a press conference following the council’s rejection of the contracts, Sununu indicated the state may explore paying the contracts with alternative funding.

Andrew Manuse, chairman of RebuildNH, which has led opposition to all COVID-19 safety protocols, including Sununu’s early shutdowns and mask mandate, anticipated the department would continue asking for this funding if the contracts were voted down by the fiscal committee Friday. 

“We just warned our people this morning to be vigilant and watch the Executive Council and fiscal committee to make sure the department does not bring these contracts back another way,” he said Tuesday, after Shibinette pulled them from the agenda. “And this shows we were right. We would ask the Executive Council and the fiscal committee to reject these contracts.”

RebuildNH has protested COVID-19 measures primarily by writing letters of opposition to state officials, holding rallies outside the State House, and maintaining a quiet but consistent presence at meetings. Another group opposed to the same measures has taken a more aggressive approach, rallying outside Sununu’s home and this weekend organizing a long “honk brigade” outside the home of Majority Leader Jason Osborne, who opposed the contracts but has not obliged their two demands: public criticism of the arrest of protesters or a call for Sununu’s resignation.

The divide between the two groups has deepened and become combative on Telegram, a social media platform both use. Those leading protests outside private homes have accused RebuildNH of doing too little and called out Manuse specifically. It’s clear they will not be joining forces anytime soon.

Manuse has spoken out against the arrest of protesters, who both groups say were demonstrating peacefully despite repeated verbal outbursts, but condemned rallies at private homes and the shutdown of the Executive Council meeting

“We believe in civil and peaceful engagement with government,” he said. “We think our voice needs to be heard. But we don’t think we need to scream our voice to make it heard.”

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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.

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