CONCORD — In a rare display of unanimity, the Senate on Thursday advanced two major pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the statewide crisis in mental health services and child welfare.
Senate Bill 11, which allocates more than $10 million to mental health services, and Senate Bill 14, a sweeping $9 million overhaul of the state’s child protection practices, were approved with little debate in 24-0 votes.
Senators on both sides of the aisle made clear their shared sense of urgency surrounding both issues, and expressed a willingness to work together on bills Republican Gov. Chris Sununu will sign into law. Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, the original sponsor of SB 11, said he was pleased with the amendments that were approved on Thursday as the Senate voted on the bill for a second time. “My bill is gone. This is now our bill,” Sherman said to his peers. “Senator (Jeb) Bradley brought up concerns. Hospitals brought up concerns, and multiple times we all met and hammered out something that is far better than what I introduced.”
The Senate gave preliminary approval to Sherman’s bill on Jan. 31, after hearings by the Health and Human Services Committee. Republicans Jeb Bradley and John Reagan voted with the 14 Democrats, in a 16-8 roll call, knowing that the bill would still have to be reviewed by the Finance Committee and could be amended.
Sherman’s original bill called for $3 million to pay for the rate increases to cover involuntary and voluntary admissions for psychiatric care; $3 million to cover costs associated with creating new psychiatric units; and $3 million for transitional housing so patients have a place to go after discharge, rather than continuing to occupy beds unnecessarily.
It also contains a provision requiring insurance companies to reimburse hospitals for the days or weeks patients spend waiting in emergency room beds. The amended version of the bill approved on Thursday changes some of the dollar amounts and calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit proposals for a fourth mobile crisis unit for mental health (the state now has three), or a second behavioral health crisis center. The dollar amounts have been changed to $1 million for increases in Medicaid rates for psychiatric patients; $4.4 million for hospitals to create three new psychiatric units, each with no fewer than eight beds; $2.1 million for transitional housing; and $3 million for the mobile crisis unit or behavioral health unit. The bill will now move to the House.
Senate Finance Chair Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, who orchestrated the compromise, called it “one of the most important bills we will pass this session.”
“There are people throughout the state waiting for the services this bill provides,” he said. Sherman expressed confidence the investments will achieve their desired goal. “This will stop the practice as quickly as possible of boarding mental health patients in emergency rooms, and will create the capacity for emergency mental health services.”
All of the expenditures would come from the 2018-2019 budget surplus, currently estimated at close to $100 million as the close of the fiscal year approaches on June 30.
D’Allesandro pointed out that lawmakers are proposing $62 million worth of appropriations that were not included in the budget submitted by the governor earlier in the month.
Child welfare act
Senate Bill 14, the child welfare act, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt several changes.
“The bill requires the DHHS to do a better job of case management, helping families in need get access to preventative services,” said Bradley. “It creates a clearinghouse for information and stresses the use of measures that work, with services that include a mobile crisis unit for children.” Legislative staff estimates the cost of the bill, which now moves to the Finance Committee, at a little more than $9 million.
“The one thing we need to consider as we debate the costs is the number of settlements the state has had to enter into with families that have experienced untoward circumstances coming out of DCYF (Division for Children, Youth and Families),” Bradley said. “The bill still has a long way to go, but the problems that have developed over the last 10, 12 or 14 years need to be resolved to prevent child abuse and neglect,” Bradley said.
The Senate also passed:
SB 174, proclaiming an annual observance of Juneteenth on June 19th every year, in honor of the end of slavery in the United States (24-0); and
SB 241, authorizing the Transportation Department to accept federal funding for the project development phase of the Capitol Corridor rail project, connecting Concord, Manchester and Nashua to the MBTA commuter rail system, in a 14-10 party line vote. Both bills now move to the House.