By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – In an end-run around the Executive Council’s controversial rejection of $27 million in federal funds for a state vaccine program, the Joint Fiscal Committee unanimously supported the acceptance of $4.68 million in more flexible funding on Friday.
Facing the prospect of vaccinating as many as 125,000 children age 5-11 who may be newly eligible next month for COVID-19 vaccines and all those who want boosters, Gov. Chris Sununu asked the Joint Fiscal Committee for approval of the federal funds as a last-minute item.
Sununu thanked the committee after the unanimous vote.
“As I said last week, we are committed to finding alternative sources of funds to ensure our vaccine distribution can move full steam ahead and today’s vote allows us to do so,” Sununu said. “This funding is critical to ensure boosters are available to the state’s vulnerable and at risk populations, and will support Regional Public Health Networks to set up efficient vaccine clinics to improve access for individuals and parents who wish to have their children vaccinated.”
This comes after the Executive Council’s 4-1 rejection last week of two federal contracts totaling $27 million following a contentious meeting in which nine protesters were arrested. Protesters – many of whom opposed forced federal mandates of vaccines – said they believed that the funds would tie the state’s hands to future federal mandates.
That was a measure rejected by Sununu and Attorney General John Formella who called language in the contract “boilerplate” and the same as had been approved in at least three other contracts approved by the Republican-controlled Executive Council.
Still, those four Republican councilors sided with the protesters and voted down the funds. Both Sununu and Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette last week vowed to look at other ways to fund the state’s vaccination program and this partly does that.
In a last-minute request, Sununu sent a letter to the fiscal committee Thursday asking them to approve the federal American Rescue Plan funds as a start. The funds are flexible and allow the state to craft its own program, he noted.
Also in the letter, he called the funding “critical” to carry out the state’s objectives in getting New Hampshire through the pandemic, and without it the state would have no ability to help its residents get vaccinated.
Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, released the following statement:
“I am pleased that the Fiscal committee voted today to finally accept some federal funding to boost the state’s vaccination efforts. Our vaccination rate has stalled, largely because Republicans have embraced outlandish conspiracies and extremist beliefs to justify blocking federal assistance.
“New Hampshire is the only state in the U.S. to reject CDC vaccine funding, which has limited our ability to control how the vaccines are provided to Granite Staters. Today’s vote was long overdue and I hope the approved funds can be quickly implemented to make up for lost time,” Wallner said.
Trish Tilley, director of public health, said there are no mandates to voluntary clinics that will be set up, though some who come may be motivated to be vaccinated because their private employers may require vaccinations as a term of employment.
Shibinette assured the $4.68 million comes without any specific strings.
She confirmed it is money the state can convert to its control and be able to invest in an immunization program on a voluntary basis. Shibinette said the need is great and boosters are going to be needed by many of the more than 60 percent of state residents who are fully vaccinated.
She said as an example that earlier, 90 percent of those in the hospital with COVID-19 were unvaccinated but now 30 percent are among those who were vaccinated and have breakthrough illnesses.
“That points to waning immunity,” Shibinette said and a need for boosters.
The other urgent need is due to the fact the FDA is likely to approve vaccinations for children who are currently ineligible. That vote is likely next week.
Shibinette said she thinks COVID-19 will become endemic, like influenza and that the issues for vaccinations are not going away.
State Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said he is concerned about the collection of data and privacy concerns as it is related to the state vaccine registry.
He wanted an explanation about opt-in policies. Shibinette said data is required to be reported to the federal CDC.
Hampstead Hospital Purchase
The fiscal committee helped advance the purchase of Hampstead Hospital to serve children in mental health crisis by approving $15 million in funding through the federal American Rescue Plan. A deal is in its final stages for the state to take ownership of the hospital in Hampstead.
What is unknown is the future costs of operation and who will operate it. Before COVID-19, the hospital was running at a profit, said Shibinette. The deal includes buildings and more than 100 acres of land on the hospital grounds.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he would support the deal which Senate President Chuck Morse, a Republican from Salem, urged them to take.
“What we really, really need is a place to put our children,” D’Allesandro said. “Children are waiting for care.”
Shibinette called it a long-term solution and a great investment for the state. Morse said it was a good value.
Plans to increase the state’s homeless shelter rate above the current level of $8 a day were once again delayed.
Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said: “It is completely unacceptable that the legislature still has not seen a plan to increase our shelter rates from $8 a night when we very well know it costs $47 a night to operate these beds. As the nights get colder, I have to ask myself and my colleagues, why has the Governor refused to approach this issue? People need help now, not when it is politically advantageous.”
Cares Act Funding Approved
The committee also approved about $39 million in federal CARES Act funds, recirculated from other accounts like the Main Street fund with much of it for homeless and housing stability assistance.
Taylor Caswell of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery told the committee the group is working to make sure the state uses all eligible components and to get those dollars spent by the end of the year.
He said the funds through FIS 21-309 will be used as much as possible and what is left will go into the state’s unemployment funds.