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Decision to table $1.1M grant request draws ire of NH advocates

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

October 01. 2017 1:18AM


CONCORD - Lawmakers are preventing the state from accepting a $1.1 million federal grant to study how insurance companies treat people with mental health problems or substance abuse disorders, despite appeals from Gov. Chris Sununu, Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny, and advocacy groups in the substance abuse and mental health arenas.

Members of the powerful Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday tabled for the second time a request by the Insurance Department to accept the grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Acceptance of these grant funds will enable the department to conduct work that is critically important to the state's response to the opioid and mental health crises," according to Sevigny.

In a Sept. 20 letter to the committee, he writes that the funds would be used to hire contractors who would work with the department to investigate whether health insurers are "complying with existing legal requirements with respect to coverage of behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment."

Sevigny's request came one day after a Sept. 19 letter from Sununu urging the Fiscal Committee to accept the funds, citing the "ongoing crises in opioid use and access to mental health treatment.

"The federal funding will enable the department to complete its work of examining compliance with coverage requirements," wrote Sununu. "Without the grant funds, the cost of these examinations would be billed to the companies being examined, an expense that might in time be passed on to consumers in the form of premium increases."

State Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, a Fiscal Committee member and vocal opponent of accepting the grant, said he believes the Insurance Department is overstepping its bounds.

"Our state's response to the mental health challenges we are facing today needs to be driven first by legislative policy and then implemented by the state agencies, not the other way around," he said.

In a written response to committee questions, Sevigny states that the research proposed "falls squarely within the department's traditional role as an insurance regulator."

According to Sevigny, "The department is looking at the carrier compliance with existing laws, not seeking to add additional requirements."

Advocates in the recovery and treatment community were dismayed by the decision.

"I would just say this is incredibly shortsighted in the midst of a mental health crisis in which hospitals aren't being reimbursed for services for people when they are being boarded in emergency departments," said Ken Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Michele Merritt, senior vice president and policy director at New Futures, said her organization "like so many others who work in this space" was extremely disappointed.

"This is a bipartisan issue, ensuring that people who are rightfully entitled to behavioral health services in their health plans are able to access those services," she said. "It would ensure those plans are doing what they are required to do under federal law, and to not allow that is completely confounding."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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