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March 20. 2014 9:27PM

House approves funding for mental health settlement

CONCORD – The money to fund a settlement between the state, federal government and citizens in the state’s mental health system was approved by the House Thursday, 173-125.

Under House Bill 1635, the state would use about $7 million in federal funds and about $4 million in state general funds over the next year-and-a-half to pay for the cost of the settlement.

Citizens in the state’s mental health system claimed they were not being placed in the least restrictive services and were receiving inadequate care through the state’s community mental health program.

The federal Justice Department joined the suit, which was settled in December with the state agreeing to beef up services, particularly in housing and employment and for crisis intervention.

Gov. Maggie Hassan backed the bill, saying it carries out the settlement reached between the parties.

“The settlement agreement further enhances community-based mental health services and increases crisis-support services, helping to address the trend of acute mental health cases at our hospitals’ emergency rooms,” Hassan said. “It also ensures that we can continue addressing our mental health challenges in a fiscally responsible way that protects the state’s budget and ensures that New Hampshire citizens are driving improvements in our mental health system – not federal judges.”

Opponents said they agreed with the settlement, but not with the proposed way to pay for it.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said additional state workers could be hired to carry out the terms of the settlement instead of contracting with the community mental health agencies, saving the state millions of dollars.

He proposed the Health and Human Service Department absorb the cost in its $4 billion, two-year budget rather than opening up the biennial budget and adding the money.

“We heard yesterday a deal is a deal, is a deal,” Kurk said. “A budget is a budget, is a budget. We don’t reopen budgets.”

But supporters said unless the lawmakers fund the settlement to allow Health and Human Services to meet its obligations, the state will face escalating legal costs.

Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, said the plaintiffs and U.S. Justice Department may withdraw their consent to the settlement if the Legislature does not fund it and revive their claims against the state.

“Failure to pass this could result in $8 million more in costs,” Nordgren said. “This is a fiscally responsible settlement.”

But House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said the House wants to use money it has yet to collect to pay for the settlement.

“By passing HB 1635, we are not only opening up the budget once again, we’re spending money we don’t have yet,” Chandler said. “We’re now proposing to use funds from the current budget surplus, which is only anticipated, not guaranteed.”

The bill now goes to the Senate.

The House voted 174-105 to kill a bill that would have prohibited purchasing alcohol and tobacco with electronic benefit transfer cards used by welfare and food stamp recipients.

House Bill 1213 is one of several dealing with EBT cards and lawmakers said they should wait and do a comprehensive review of card use and how state agencies should manage their use.

Questions have been raised about the use of the cards with some saying they are being used to purchase non-essential items or used in cash machines with no way of tracking purchases.

Federal law forbids the use of the cards for such things as strip clubs or race tracks.

Health and Human Services officials say it is almost impossible to track what people using the cards purchase.

Lawmakers have established an interim study committee to look into the issue.

grayno@unionleader.com


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