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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Worker protection bill stalls

March 03. 2018 6:07PM

Health care workers at the state psychiatric hospital and youth detention center continue to be assaulted by patients, and the Executive Council continues to get requests for compensation from the Department of Health and Human Services.

But there's been a change triggered by our reporting of the attacks. Requests now come to the Executive Council with names of the injured blacked out and fewer details about the incident.

The confidentiality came about at the request of North Country Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, who said injured employees felt their privacy was being violated. Other councilors agreed, and DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers now presents the requests in a redacted format.

One injured New Hampshire Hospital nurse whose name was published before the blackout took effect has a different perspective.

Registered nurse June Garen of Gilmanton says she initially felt "a little sense of intrusion and panic" at being identified, but in the months since has turned those feelings into political activism.

Working with Rep. Mark MacKenzie, D-Manchester, and with the support of others whose family members have been injured or even killed working in the public sector, she hung her hopes on House Bill 1500.

To say the experience has been disappointing would be putting it mildly.

The bill defines workplace violence and workplace injuries, and requires that deaths and serious injuries in the public sector workplace be reported to the commissioner of labor. It doesn't go so far as to extend OSHA protections to the state's public sector employees, but MacKenzie calls it an incremental step in that direction. Apparently, a majority on the House Labor Committee think that's a step too far.

"The House Labor Committee hearing left me and other supporters of HB 1500 feeling devalued and betrayed," says Garen. "They appeared to only be interested in nitpicking and fabricating fantastic 'what if' situations. It still boggles me that citizens of this state can be discarded so thoughtlessly by the people who I thought were elected to serve us."

The 21-member Labor Committee voted 11-10 along party lines on Monday to retain the bill, with Republicans in the majority. In the second year of a two-year session, interim study is often the kiss of death. "I will never understand how something as important as safety and potentially saving lives can be decided primarily on partisan lines," says Garen. "My ignorance and trusting nature did not serve me well."

MacKenzie is hoping to reverse the committee decision when the bill comes to the full House for a vote. "We're going to offer an amendment on the floor and try to convince the House that this is something we should try to do now," he said. "There will be an opportunity in the Senate and in Conference Committee to work out some of the details that concerned the Labor Committee."

He sounded more optimistic than Garen. "I don't think we're that far away from getting this done, but we've got to overcome some objections," he said.

Foster family bill fails

Another person disappointed by the legislative process is Rep. Sean Morrison, R-Epping, who's battling to enact a bill of rights for foster families. His four-page bill, HB 1562, enumerated 18 rights for foster parents as they interact with DCYF and the court system. The House Children and Family Law Committee voted 14-0 to cut that down to a four-point proposition.

Even that is unlikely to pass, according to Morrison, because of what he calls a "poison pill" - a fiscal note from the Department of Health and Human Services that claims it would cost the state an additional $2 million a year to ensure the foster family protections Morrison is proposing.

"In order to fulfill its responsibilities under the bill, the department estimates that it will need a dedicated foster care resource worker for each of 12 district offices," according to DHHS.

The department also claims the bill would force the state to raise foster care stipends by 60 percent because of a provision that calls for "the right to receive fair and equitable payments and other financial reimbursement for the care of a child in foster care."

Meanwhile, the Health and Human Services Oversight Subcommittee on Foster Care, under the leadership of Rep. Mariellen MacKay, R-Nashua, will meet again at 1 p.m. on March 5 in Room 205 of the Legislative Office Building.

"We are looking for foster parents to attend and share their comments, concerns, issues, compliments and suggestions," said MacKay.

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