The Bulletin Board

Democrats say Sununu lacked ‘necessary urgency’ on mental health crisis

By: - May 18, 2021 2:41 pm

Democratic Sens. Cindy Rosenwald of Nashua (top left), Becky Whitley of Hopkinton (top right), and Tom Sherman of Rye hold a press conference Tuesday on the state’s mental health crisis. (Screenshot)

Before the Senate finalizes its changes to the House’s budget, Democratic senators want two things noted: Now is not the time to cut mental health funding, and Gov. Chris Sununu had the money in 2019 to make urgent the mental health investments he’s now calling for in Thursday’s executive order.

“There was so much that could have been done,” said Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, at a press conference Tuesday. “We just didn’t see the necessary urgency from the governor during that time before the pandemic hit.” She added: “Once the pandemic hit . . . we saw a dramatic spike in children and adults waiting in the emergency rooms. And even then, we didn’t see the necessary urgency from the governor.”

The timing of Tuesday’s press conference was clear. 

The Senate Finance Committee on Monday reversed the House’s $50 million budget cut to the state Department of Health and Human Services but voted 5-2 against restoring 200 department positions cut by the House. And, Sununu said he will ask the Fiscal Committee for more money to expand many of the mental health services he and the Legislature agreed to and paid for in the last budget. The Fiscal Committee next meets on Friday.

The messaging, though, is nuanced. 

The Democrats, like Sununu, want immediate increases in mental health care services, but they want it known they gave the state a plan and the money to do that well before COVID-19 shut down the state and triggered a dramatic increase in mental health needs. The budget Sununu and the Legislature signed off on in 2019 included a statewide mobile crisis response, funding for more psychiatric hospital beds, and 40 new transitional spaces for people once they no longer need hospital level mental health care. 

Much of that remains in progress. The Democrats blame Sununu, who they say took the state’s mental health needs seriously only after the state Supreme Court said in a ruling last week that the state was violating the due process rights of people by not giving them timely hearings to challenge their detainment in emergency rooms while the state waits for an opening at a psychiatric hospital. 

“If only Governor Sununu had recognized the progressive urgency of the situation and implemented the reforms,” Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat, said at Tuesday’s press conference. “We all knew what was needed. Unfortunately, he did not, and now we’re facing an unprecedented crisis.”

In announcing his executive order Thursday, Sununu put the blame on mental health care providers. He said none submitted a bid to create a mobile crisis response team, expand transitional housing, or add psychiatric beds and services to alleviate the emergency room boarding crisis. 

“Despite the traditional obstacles that have been in the way, some of these obstacles have been there for decades,” Sununu said Thursday. “And we’re really just not putting up with that anymore.”

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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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