A key legislative panel has authorized New Hampshire to spend $15.1 million in federal relief funds to buy a hospital and expand mental health services for youth.
On Friday, the Joint Legislative and Fiscal Committee voted 10-0 to authorize the purchase of the 111-bed Hampstead Hospital, which provides mental health treatment and inpatient psychiatric care for children.
The funding for the purchase, which is several months in the making, will come from the state’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief money.
Gov. Chris Sununu, who proposed purchasing the hospital, said the move will help ease a mental health crisis by providing more beds for youth seeking treatment.
Mental health advocates say the shortage of beds in psychiatric facilities means that patients are “warehoused” in private hospitals for weeks – even months – as they wait for an opening in a state-run facility. As of Monday about two dozen children were waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities, according to state public health data.
In May, Sununu signed an executive order directing the state Department of Health and Human Services to increase access to mental health services and add more beds at state-run psychiatric facilities to reduce the number of patients being held involuntarily in emergency rooms while they await placement.
The order followed a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that chided the Sununu administration for boarding psychiatric patients awaiting beds.
Sununu’s order directs the state agency to “take immediate, targeted, and direct action to ensure there is a system in place to help individuals in mental health crises have timely and appropriate medical care.”
Sununu said the state plans to keep current employees at the facility but will be looking to expand the services that the hospital offers for children in mental health crises.
During the pandemic, the Hampstead Hospital has struggled to fill the available beds amid chronic staffing shortages, Sununu said.
The move was praised by groups that advocate for expanded mental health services, who say the need for more psychiatric beds has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
“For the state to take action, to try to take some control of this situation, I have to think is a positive move,” Ken Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in a statement. “What’s been happening up to this point hasn’t been successful.”
The number of youth experiencing a mental health crisis and in need of inpatient mental health treatment has “more than tripled” since the start of the pandemic, the group said.
The New Hampshire Executive Council, which must also approve the hospital purchase, is expected to vote on the measure on Wednesday.