Tackling state mental health plan's recommendations one by one

Mental health leaders applaud after Gov. Chris Sununu signed three executive orders on Tuesday to improve mental health services, promote workforce development and streamline regulations. From left are Peter Janelle, executive director of Network4Health; Bill Rider, president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester (MHCGM); Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers from the state Department of Health and Human Services; Peter Evers, CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health; Ken Norton from NAMI-NH; and Rik Cornell, vice president at MHCGM.

Gov. Chris Sununu is creating new two commissions to improve services for individuals with mental illnesses in the state’s correctional system; and to promote workforce development in mental health fields.

Flanked by advocates and clinicians at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester (MHCGM) on Tuesday, the governor signed executive orders that address three of the 14 recommendations included in the 10-year mental health plan that the state Department of Health and Human Services released in January.

One of those recommendations was the creation of a commission to bring together state and county corrections, the judicial branch, designated receiving facilities, the state hospital and community providers “to address issues that arise when individuals with mental illness end up in the correctional system.”

The executive order Sununu signed Tuesday charges his new Advisory Commission on Mental Illness and the Corrections System with looking at how to reduce incarceration and improve services for such individuals, and to support individuals who are transitioning from jail back to their communities. It also is tasked with examining the use of restraints during transport to and from mental health and correctional facilities.

The governor also signed an executive order establishing a commission to address the shortage of mental health workers in New Hampshire, and “develop strategies to boost recruitment and retention of a mental health workforce for the state.” The Statewide Oversight Commission on Mental Health Workforce Development will include state officials from DHHS, Business and Economic Affairs, Employment Security, the university and community college systems, as well as lawmakers.

Its duties include looking at student loan repayment programs, reviewing licensing regulations, and identifying policies to boost compensation.

At the signing ceremony, William Rider, president and CEO of MHCGM, recalled the progress made under another Gov. Sununu, the current governor’s father, John, in the mid-1980s, that led to construction of a new state hospital. And he said, “This is, I think, another very big fork in the road for New Hampshire, and I think we’re taking the right fork in the road and going in the right direction.”

Chris Sununu praised the efforts of DHHS to involve stakeholders across New Hampshire in crafting the new 10-year mental health plan. And he said the state’s strong economy offers a chance to act in a bipartisan manner to improve the mental health system long-term.

“We’re really at an opportune point here in New Hampshire, where we can take what we’ve talked about to the next level and put into action a lot of the things we’ve hoped and dreamed about,” Sununu said. “The funding is there, the opportunity is there, and that’s where I think the state really needs to step up and make sure we’re taking advantage of that while we can.”

The final executive order Sununu signed creates a new Division of Performance Evaluation and Innovation to streamline operations at DHHS. The department is required to create a “work plan” for the new division by July 1, outlining what it will take to fulfill the recommendations in the 10-year plan.

DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the move represents “a really big step forward … so that our department and others we work with can really focus on making sure that we deliver services efficiently and effectively, and that we’re streamlining things in a way that will help us use well all of the money we’re getting, both from the state and federal government.”

Meyers told the Union Leader he expects to be able to rely on existing personnel and funding to create the new division at DHHS.

The product of numerous work groups and a series of listening sessions held around the state last year, the DHHS 10-year plan recommends transforming the state’s mental health system into a “hub and spoke” model, integrated with the new system the state has been building to help those with substance abuse disorders.

Under the proposed system, fewer people would need to seek mental health care at hospital emergency departments, waiting for specialty care. Instead, they would have access to regional hubs that help them access services in their local communities.

Sununu said it’s critical to create a mental health system that can respond to future, unforeseen needs as they arise. “It’s got to be flexible and dynamic, and we on a government level have to be flexible and responsive to those needs,” he said.

Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com. To read previous stories in this series, visit: unionleader.com/stigma.