Commentary

Next DHHS commissioner will need to keep the focus – and the faith

July 26, 2022 5:45 am
Exterior of Health and Human Services, a brick building with a large sign

The Department of Health and Human Services will be led by a new commissioner after Lori Shibinette steps down at the end of the year. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The NH Community Behavioral Health Association (CBHA), representing the state’s 10 community mental health centers, joins with our mental health and health care partners in recognizing Lori Shibinette for her service as commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. The commissioner recently announced that she will leave at the end of 2022, and Gov. Chris Sununu now has the task of finding someone to replace her in leading the state’s largest and most challenging agency.

From Day One, Commissioner Shibinette has been laser-focused on getting people who are in a mental health crisis out of hospital emergency rooms and into appropriate and timely mental health care. She has worked to stand up new mobile crisis teams, create a new psychiatric hospital for children, and increase the number of beds available for children and adults. And she has done all of this during the most difficult public health crisis in our lifetimes: the COVID-19 pandemic. It brings to mind how the dancer Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but she had to do it backwards, and in heels, with incredible purpose, much like our current commissioner. 

The community mental health centers, our staff, our boards, and the people we serve owe the commissioner a very large debt of gratitude for her dedicated work on mental health issues. On an even broader scale, we want to acknowledge that she and her staff have been the voice of reason at the State House when misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines, masking, and other critical public health issues has been spread during the past two years. Because of the determination and hard work of DHHS, hospitals, community health centers, mental health centers, and other advocates, there was success in 2022 in pushing back many of the anti-public health, anti-vaccine, and anti-science measures proposed in the Legislature. 

As we approach a new legislative session and as a new state budget begins to take shape, it is critical that DHHS has a leader who promotes access to care, the implementation and expansion of evidence-based practices, the collection of data, and science, above all. In the mental health field, we need a leader who understands the strength and effectiveness of a community-based system of care; who can address the workforce crisis with expanded funding for the State Loan Repayment Program; who advocates and understands the importance and relationship between Medicaid rates, service access, and a valued workforce; and who will address relief from administrative burdens to help us retain critical staff and optimize our teams to deliver clinical excellence to our respective communities. CBHA has begun work in all these areas with DHHS and the governor’s office, and we look forward to working with a new commissioner as well.

We must not lose sight of key legislative items and extreme proposals seen in the last session that may be reintroduced in 2023, such as the contentious parental rights bill that died in a committee of conference in May. A related bill, House Bill 1639, relative to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which allows the state to apply for and qualify for federal funds, also died in a committee of conference, but it too is likely to be resurrected. The sponsors argue that high school students should not be part of the anonymous survey without an opt-in from their parents, because being asked questions about suicide, domestic violence, and drug use is too intrusive and upsetting. CBHA and other advocates argue that the value of data collected through the YRBS is critical in assessing what communities need and then how to proactively address the issues our teens face.

Our children depend on us, and we must understand their mental health needs in order to be successful in positively impacting care and overall health. A recent news report on a teen suicide in Bedford pointed to data from the 2019 YRBS at Bedford High School, which highlighted that drug use was higher there than at other schools in the region and the state, clearly important information to the school and the communities it serves.   

As we think about how a new DHHS commissioner can best serve the state and its residents, let’s please build on the work that Commissioner Shibinette has done for the past 2½ years in the areas of public health and mental health. We wish her all the best as we commit to continuing her efforts to improve access to care, maintain and support the community-based system of care, and adhere to science and truth.

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Maggie Pritchard
Maggie Pritchard

Maggie Pritchard is president of the NH Community Behavioral Health Association and executive director of Lakes Region Mental Health Center.

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