State hospital crisis unit to hire staff

CONCORD — State Health and Human Services officials received the go-ahead to hire staff for a new 10-bed crisis unit at the New Hampshire Hospital they hope will help relieve the stress on local hospitals.

The 10-bed unit was approved by lawmakers two years ago in the state’s capital budget, but has not opened and was delayed due to the budget impasse between Gov. Maggie Hassan and lawmakers this past summer and into the fall.

On Wednesday, the Executive Council approved an increase of $207,000 for a psychiatrist in the state’s contract with Dartmouth College to run the state hospital and a 15 percent hourly wage increase for nurses to staff the unit.

Robert MacLeod, hospital chief executive officer, said officials had hoped the unit would open in July, but that did not happen. He said there are currently 28 adults and 10 children in local hospital emergency rooms waiting to be admitted to NHH. He noted that puts hospitals under tremendous pressure having to wait for openings at NHH.

MacLeod said the 15 percent wage boost for nurses will make the agency competitive with the market, which means they will likely be hiring mostly nurses just graduating from college, with a few experienced nurses.

Gov. Maggie Hassan noted that finding nursing staff is an industry-wide problem.

MacLeod said the target is to open the new crisis unit by mid-summer, but added it would be open as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on local hospitals holding psychiatric patients in their emergency rooms.

Prison overtime

The council approved $1.4 million in overtime for the Corrections Department.

Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn said overtime is an ongoing issue with the department as shifts have to be filled to provide 24-hour security at the prisons.

He noted the budgets lawmakers approve have never funded overtime to projected levels, but the Legislature severely trimmed the overtime budget Hassan presented last year for this two-year budget cycle.

“We look at the minimum levels every year,” Wrenn said, “and make adjustments. The purse strings in this account are constantly being pulled.”

He noted recruiting corrections officers is difficult, and those that do make it through the process have to spend a year working with another officer.

The vacancy rate has been challenging for several years, he said.

Solar hold

The council voted to put off a decision to approve $450,000 in renewable energy funds for Portsmouth to install solar arrays on the city’s high school and its water treatment plant in Madbury.

District 3 Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields — as he has done in the past — questioned the value of the project, saying the costs do not offset the benefits.

“What are the benefits to taxpayers?” Sununu asked.

Public Utilities Commission Chairman Marty Honigberg said because the panels will be owned by the city, the taxpayers will not have pay for the electricity that is produced.

Hassan said there is also the benefit of cleaner air, noting the state has been hit by significant storms in recent years that are likely due to climate change from greenhouse gases.

Sununu questioned whether a similar project in Durham the council approved earlier was going ahead as planned, but Durham officials later said the project is proceeding as planned.

District 2 Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, noted Sununu has voted repeatedly against solar projects to come before the council. He said he did not object to delaying a vote for two weeks, but if Sununu is going to vote no in two weeks anyway, he wanted to see the council vote Wednesday on the project.

Sununu said he would not cast a blanket yes vote like others on the council, but wants to find out what is going on in Durham and to be sure there is accurate information on the Portsmouth project.

The council voted to table the request for two weeks.


State House Bureau