Health care groups urge lawmakers to give remote access

Legislative leaders are being urged to bring back remote access to meetings next session due to rising cases of COVID-19. Here, Republican Speaker Sherman Packard, right, shakes hands with House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing during a House session held in Bedford last spring.

Leaders of more than two dozen health care groups are urging legislative leaders to allow an all-remote option for lawmakers, staff and the public next year at the State House.

The diverse group ranged from the New Hampshire Medical Society to the New Hampshire Nurse Practitioners Association, Disabilities Rights Center and New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

Republican leaders should reconsider in-person requirements for lawmakers and the public to attend committee meetings and legislative sessions, the group said.

“As you often remind us, the State House is the people’s house, and public input and the right to know are critical components of New Hampshire’s legislative process,” the organizations wrote in the letter to Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.

“Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging throughout our state, individuals would have to put their own health, and that of their families, friends, neighbors, and communities, at risk in order to attend and testify in-person at legislative committee hearings, meetings, and sessions.”

House leaders said they are looking into whether they could bring back streaming committee sessions.

“The General Court is pursuing funding for the purchase of audio and video equipment for the purpose of live streaming meetings of standing committees, and certain statutory committees such as the fiscal committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules,” Packard’s office said in a statement.

“A project of this nature also requires hiring of additional staff, which is part of the planning process. Given that funding has not yet been secured, the exact details are not yet complete.”

Positivity rate up

Over the past week, the state averaged nearly 560 cases per day, the highest level since last January, with more than 4,600 active infections.

There are substantial levels of the virus in all 10 counties.

While statewide the test positivity rate continues to inch up — now at 6.5% — it’s significantly higher in Coos County (16.6%), the Upper Valley (Sullivan County, 11.7%) and the Lakes Region (Belknap County, 10%).

Health care experts have said keeping the rate below 5% is a sign the virus is under control.

As of Monday, the number of COVID hospitalizations was raised to 178; it had stood at 140 in recent weeks.

Legislative leaders reopened the State House to meetings shortly after Gov. Chris Sununu ended the COVID-19 state of emergency last June.

While most committees didn’t meet during the summer months, many have come back to hold in-person sessions since Labor Day to work on nearly 200 bills left over from the 2021 session.

During an interview last week, Packard said he’s taken numerous steps to assure everyone will be safe when in-person sessions return in 2022.

The speaker said all policy committees now are meeting in double-size rooms to allow for social distancing. House and Senate leaders have installed more than 120 air cleaning machines to recirculate fresh air into those spaces.

Staffers have also moved furniture so there is more space between lawmakers, Packard said.

House Dems filed suit

Many legislators have told Packard they are anxious to bring lawmakers back into the State House.

“There are a lot of new members who haven’t had the chance to meet their colleagues on the other side of the aisle since the pandemic hit,” Packard said.

While the wearing of face coverings is not required, Packard said for weeks he’s urged his colleagues to “strongly consider wearing one.”

House Democratic leaders last spring filed a federal lawsuit challenging Packard’s decision that lawmakers with disabilities could not vote remotely during sessions.

A lower federal court judge ruled in favor of Packard’s decision, but a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge in Boston said the matter should be reopened for hearings on whether this restriction violated the rights of lawmakers under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

The Biden administration Justice Department has weighed in favor of the House Democrats’ position. State prosecutors have vowed that if necessary, the state will appeal this view all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other groups signing onto Monday’s letter included the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI-N.H.), Waypoint (formerly Child and Family Services of New Hampshire), the N.H. Coalition of Recovery Residences, Granite State Home Health and Hospice Assoc., ABLE-N.H., the N.H. Alliance for Healthy Aging, Alcohol & Drug Abuse Counselors Assoc., the N.H. Nutrition Network, Leading Age of Maine & New Hampshire, the N.H. Community Behavioral Health Assoc., N.H. Public Health Assoc., N.H. Assoc. of Residential Care Homes, N.H. Recovery Community Center Network, Granite State Independent Living and American Cancer Society Center Action Network, N.H Community Support Network and Bi-State Primary Care Assoc.

“Conversely, as we learned during the 2021 session, videoconferencing effectively provides safe and secure access to legislative proceedings to citizens, health care providers and advocates all across New Hampshire,” the group wrote.

Last week, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton said he’s renewed a similar request for Packard to bring back remote access, but to no avail.

“The speaker won’t implement the best practices that we have,” Cushing said.