May 18. 2017 9:03PM

NH House passes emergency funding measure to enable DHHS to pay its bills

State House Bureau

CONCORD — A $32 million infusion of cash to erase an operating deficit in New Hampshire’s largest state agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, cleared the House in a 283-32 vote on Thursday.

The Senate already approved the emergency funding measure, attached to House Bill 629, so all that remains is for Gov. Chris Sununu to sign the bill as expected.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, chairman of the House Finance Committee, urged the House to concur with the Senate-passed measure as a way of dealing with a $66 million deficit at DHHS, which administers Medicaid and welfare, investigates child abuse and provides a host of other services and programs accounting for half the state budget.

“The deficit is due to estimates that were made in the course of the budgeting process that turned out to be inaccurate,” said Kurk. “It’s unfortunate that this happens, but as hard as we try we sometimes make mistakes.”

The problem surfaced soon after the current budget took effect, and state officials have been monitoring DHHS spending closely for the past 18 months, Kurk said. They had hoped to deal with the deficit through the regular budget process, but have run out of time.

“It turns out the department is running out of money and will not be able to make its June payments to the Medicaid managed care organizations,” said Kurk. “That would incur interest, and it’s not a good thing for the state of New Hampshire to be late in making its payments. We have a reputation to protect.”

The department erased half the deficit on its own by leaving vacant positions unfilled and making other spending cuts

Most of the overspending comes in three key areas.

The state spent $24 million more than budgeted because of unanticipated increases in the rates paid to the companies that manage the traditional Medicaid program for more than 100,000 qualified low-income households.

Second, Medicaid caseloads were budgeted to decrease, but remained the same in 2016, resulting in another $10 million problem. Kurk said budget-writers two years ago had hoped that the improving economy would reduce the number of people on Medicaid, but that turned out to be overly optimistic.

On top of that, the state’s payment to hospitals for uncompensated care was nearly $16 million more than budgeted because the state lost a court case brought by the hospitals demanding higher payments.

Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers has portrayed all three issues as beyond the control of DHHS.

Grandparents’ rights

Lost in the attention to the Health and Human Services bailout was the fact that the underlying bill, HB 629, is also now ready for the governor’s signature.

The bill, once signed into law, will require Family Court judges to give priority to grandparents when considering guardianship cases that arise because of the parents’ substance abuse.

The prime sponsor of the bill, Mariellen MacKay, R-Nashua, said Sununu has promised a ceremonial signing of the bill in two weeks.

The former president of the state’s Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, MacKay said she has for years heard from grandparents who lacked standing in custody cases involving their grandchildren.

“What they wanted was a voice in court,” she said. “They had no standing. This is their grandchild. Who better to step in?”

The impact of the new law will be restricted to cases involving drug-addicted parents, for now, said MacKay, although it could be expanded in the future.

New Hampshire is the first state to adopt such a measure, she said, largely in response to the opioid addiction crisis that has seen more grandparents become caregivers.