Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, here with Gov. Chris Sununu at a May Executive Council meeting, announced she will leave her job in December. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Executive councilors unanimously approved a two-year, $52 million contract Wednesday with a company that primarily treats incarcerated adults to provide psychiatric care for children at Hampstead Hospital. They did so after Attorney General John Formella told them the company hasn’t faced an “unusually high” number of lawsuits for an organization working in the prison industry, and that he believes the contract gives the state considerable on-site oversight of clinical care.
Health and Human Services Associate Commissioner Morissa Henn told councilors the department was particularly reassured by Wellpath Recovery Solutions’ work at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, which treats children ages 13-18. (Hampstead Hospital cares for children ages 5-17.) Wellpath held the contract in Alaska for 18 months, between February 2019 and August 2020.
The vote came two weeks after councilors tabled the no-bid contract, saying they needed more time to review it. Some also said they were concerned about the hundreds of lawsuits the company has faced alleging poor care.
And this week, five advocacy organizations urged councilors to seriously consider not approving the contract in light of recent investigations into Wellpath’s care by the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts and the U.S. Department of Justice.
At the request of Councilor Cinde Warmington, Formella’s office conducted an independent analysis of those concerns and legal challenges.
In a six-page memo to the council, Formella said his office spoke to a Wellpath executive about its litigation and experience caring for people not involved in the criminal justice system; looked at the company’s internal records regarding the lawsuits; reviewed the investigations of the Disability Law Center and U.S. Department of Justice; and did its own legal review of the hundreds of lawsuits against the company.
The organizations – Disability Rights Center-NH, New Futures, NAMI New Hampshire, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and Waypoint of New Hampshire – asked councilors to require several safeguards if they approved the contract.
Those included on-site supervision by the state; creating an ombudsman within the Office of the Child Advocate to review those records and conduct on-site monitoring; and establishing a clear procedure for Health and Human Services to receive, investigate, and remedy patient complaints.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said those measures are part of the contract or part of the state’s plan.
Formella said he saw no “red flags” and found that of the 26 claims tied to Wellpath’s work in psychiatric hospitals, only two resulted in settlements, both in 2017.
Formella closed his memo by saying, “The media reports and the concerns regarding Wellpath sound troubling, but a deeper analysis of more analogous treatment milieus indicate that Wellpath does not pose any unusually high risk of litigation or substantial risk to the future children and young adult patients at Hampstead Hospital.”
Shibinette said her department offered Wellpath the contract directly because there was too little time to seek bids before the state must finalize its $15.1 million purchase of Hampstead Hospital by June. She told councilors she will seek bids before awarding a new contract after Wellpath’s expires.
“Kids are my priority,” she told councilors. “That is why I am bringing this forward. That’s why the governor and I made the decision to go forward … to secure children’s services in our state long term, because it’s that important.”
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