State House rally focused on health care workforce

Many of those who rely on home health aides turned out for Monday’s State House rally in support of a bill to increase Medicaid rates and fund health care workforce incentives.

CONCORD — Nearly 50 health care organizations and the people they serve were represented at a rally in front of the State House on Monday, calling for passage of a Senate bill that would invest an additional $80 million a year in New Hampshire’s health care workforce.

The bill, SB 308, would increase the rates paid to Medicaid service providers by 5 percent in 2020 and 7 percent in 2021, while expanding the college loan repayment program for health care professionals.

New Hampshire Medicaid rates, which cover many of the services for adults with disabilities or special needs, are the lowest in the country and haven’t been permanently adjusted across the board since 2006. Current rates allow for payment of about $12.50 an hour for home health aides.

“I don’t know how many people would be willing to work for $12.50 an hour without any increase in pay or benefits for so many years,” said Nancy Kelleher of Goffstown, who spoke with her daughter, Megan, at her side.

Megan has special needs and congestive heart failure, and has been unable to recruit any aides at the current pay levels. Her mother described the workforce shortage in health care as “critical and overwhelming.”

“It’s our responsibility as members of the community to speak out,” said Kelleher, struggling to maintain her composure. “This rate increase will enable me to pay at a higher rate, but it will also keep her alive. I need help and I need this to pass.”

In a demonstration of bipartisan support for the bill, Democratic sponsor Sen. Cindy Rosenwald of Nashua was joined at the podium by Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro.

“The fact that there are 2,000 unfilled vacancies in health care is a significant issue that our state faces,” said Bradley. “This is an incredibly important piece of legislation. We have to have realistic expectations, but there is an absolute need for these provisions, especially on student loan repayment and higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers.”

State House protest over Medicaid rates

Representatives of health care providers and their clients staged a rally in front of the State House on Monday in support of a bill that would pour another $88 million a year into Medicaid rates and health care workforce development.

SB 308 also expands the use of telemedicine, creates new programs for data collection on the existing health care workforce, simplifies the criminal background checks for new employees, provides scholarships for students in health care fields and funding to enhance programs of study in health care.

The bill passed the Senate on March 27 in a 23-0 vote, but was immediately tabled so that it could be included in budget negotiations with the House.

The organizations and individuals represented at Monday’s protests are hoping the funding will be included in the legislature’s version of the two-year budget and that Gov. Chris Sununu will sign it into law.

Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt pointed to the governor’s version of the budget, which calls for a one-time investment of $24 million to expand nursing and other health care degree programs in the state university system.

SB 308, however, commits the state to millions of additional dollars in Medicaid and student loan repayments for years to come.

“While Gov. Sununu will review the final language of the legislation should it reach his desk, he is concerned about such a large expenditure outside of the budget process, especially with ongoing costs,” said Vihstadt.

Bradley said he anticipates the bill’s main components will be negotiated as part of the budget process that usually winds up by mid- to late-June.

Stephanie Pagliuca, director of the recruitment at Bi-State Primary Care Association, with offices in Bow and Montpelier, Vt., says the status quo can’t be sustained.

“In the community health centers we represent there are more than 100 vacancies and it can take months to fill an open position,” she said.

“What that means is that sometimes we can’t offer new services or continue to offer services, because we don’t have the providers to do the work. Across the state, people are going without care.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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