Fiscal committee approves funds to address shortage of hospital beds

By: - December 2, 2021 12:28 pm
A nurse pushes a patient down a hospital hallway

At least two New Hampshire hospitals are postponing non-emergency procedures to preserve bed space. (Getty Images)

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette offered a stark visual Thursday when she asked state fiscal officials for more flexibility spending $90 million in federal aid tackling the state’s hospital bed shortage. 

Moving a single elder who doesn’t need acute hospital care to a nursing home would allow hospitals to treat as many as 20 patients who truly need that level of care, she said. The problem, Shibinette added, is that too few nursing homes have the staff to open beds, forcing overrun hospitals to send some patients out of state.

“What we do know is our hospitals are transferring patients as far away as Connecticut and Albany, New York, to get the right level of care that they need,” Shibinette told the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. “And we’re not just talking about COVID patients. We’re talking about patients with heart attacks and strokes and things like that.”

As of Thursday, hospitals were operating at 91 percent capacity, she said. But that remaining 9 percent may be in pediatric and maternity wards, and not a true indicator of hospitals’ ability to absorb more acute patients. Hospitalization of just COVID-19 patients hit 403 Wednesday. 

At least two hospitals are postponing non-emergency procedures to preserve bed space, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health announced Wednesday it was treating 62 patients across its system and would also consider reducing or postponing elective procedures if needed. 

The committee approved Shibinette’s request, allowing her to proceed with several initiatives suggested by the state’s hospital leaders.

That includes eight “strike teams” of health care workers to work in long-term care facilities. Shibinette said the state is hoping to recruit staff from out of state and not from New Hampshire health care settings. 

“There are several county (long-term care) facilities and a couple of private facilities that have said if you can get us the staff, we can open up a 25-bed unit in our nursing home and take those hospitalized patients,” Shibinette said.

The department clarified a comment from the governor Tuesday that team members would be paid as much as $300 an hour. The state will use $6 million to pay the agencies, not the team members, rates of $200 to $300 an hour. The agencies will set salaries. 

About $2.2 million of the federal aid will be used as an incentive to persuade nursing homes and rehabilitation centers to take Medicaid patients while their eligibility is under review. If patients are denied Medicaid coverage, the state will pay those providers directly. 

The state will use $3.2 million to pay rehabilitation centers their standard rates to take patients waiting for a nursing home bed. And nearly $9 million will be offered to outpatient ambulatory care providers to create surge centers to treat acute patients who need in-patient care.

The department also received authority to use nearly $70 million of the federal pandemic aid to increase the number of mobile vans and fixed sites providing vaccines and booster doses, and COVID-19 testing. The money will also go toward the state’s Dec. 11 Booster Blitz, where booster doses will be offered by appointment only at 16 sites. An individual can make appointments for up to five people at vaccines.nh.gov.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who asked committee members to support Shibinette’s request, issued a statement following their approval. “I appreciate the fiscal committee acting on an expedited basis to approve these critical funds which are a necessary first step in addressing health care capacity challenges in New Hampshire,” he wrote. 

The Executive Council must also approve Shibinette’s spending requests. They could go before the council as early as next week, but that remained uncertain 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.

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