By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Executive Council has rejected another effort to provide $1 million in funding for non-abortion reproductive health-care services for low-income residents at facilities in Concord, Greenland, Claremont, Manchester, Keene, Derry, and Exeter.
The repeated request by Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette was placed on the council agenda by Gov. Chris Sununu who supported the contract, Dec. 22, 2021, and again asked for reconsideration from his fellow Republicans without effect.
The two-year contracts, which impact between 10,000 and 12,000 individuals, failed on a vote of 4-1. Republicans Ted Gatsas of Manchester, David Wheeler of Milford, Joe Kenney of Wakefield, and Janet Stevens of Rye all voted to reject the contract while the lone Democrat, Cinde Warmington of Concord, supported the request.
Shibinette said in her letter of request that by rejecting the contract the Council would “remove the safety net of services that improves birth outcomes, prevents unplanned pregnancies and reduces health disparities, which could increase the cost of health care for New Hampshire citizens.”
In December, the Council also rejected the same two-year contracts totaling $1,020,329 for Equality Health Center (for $558,395), Joan G. Lovering Health Center of Greenland ($336,939), and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England ($125,000) with clinics in Claremont, Manchester, Keene, Derry, and Exeter. About 58 percent of the funds would have come from the state’s general fund while the rest would have been from federal sources and all would adhere to federal Title X funding which prohibits the money being used for abortion services.
Representatives for those health centers said the money would have been used to help lower income people access care on a sliding scale basis and the rejected contracts would mean that reproductive health services would be out of financial reach for some and have an impact on emergency rooms and other health services.
Warmington said there were additional information requests of the Council that were answered with the contracts and the funds were for important health-care services and not abortions and are fully in line with the laws. She said it was her understanding there is a surge since the pandemic in sexually transmitted diseases and added that defunding this would place additional stress on an already stressed medical system in the state.
In a number of questions to Shibinette, Warmington asked and the commissioner confirmed there would be little to no Title X services in most parts of the state now.
Wheeler said he is not convinced that the funds do not directly or indirectly pay for abortions. When Shibinette asked him if there is anything she could provide to convince him otherwise, he said no.
Just before the vote, Sununu asked Shibinette if she wanted to bet a dollar on how the vote would go. She laughed.
After the 4-1 roll call vote, Sununu asked for reconsideration.
Warmington said she would ask for the contracts to come up for every meeting going forward and Sununu said if there was additional information to be provided for the council he would allow for it.
After the vote, PPNNE, Equality Health Center, and Lovering Health Center released the following statements:
“Since this Executive Council cast their first vote to defund reproductive health providers last September, hundreds of Granite Staters have spoken out. Councilors Kenney, Stevens, Gatsas, and Wheeler have now had two opportunities to fix their mistake but refuse to put their personal politics to the side to do what’s right for their constituents. This is yet another vote to dismantle the state family planning program and it is irresponsible and will cause irreparable harm to our network of care. New Hampshire deserves better,” stated Kayla Montgomery, vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
Dalia Vidunas, executive director of Equality Health Center said, “The fact is New Hampshire patients and our state’s health-care infrastructure will be negatively impacted by these multiple defund votes.”
“We remain disappointed that the Executive Councilors continues to put politics before public health and jeopardize access to family planning care for 12,000 Granite Staters who rely on Equality Health Center, Lovering Health Center, and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England,” Vidunas said.
Sandi Denoncour, Executive Director of Lovering Health Center added, “For six months reproductive health providers and state public health officials have bent over backwards to answer all the council’s questions. As asserted by the Attorney General, our health centers are in full compliance with state law. Unfortunately, the Council’s willful ignorance threatens New Hampshire’s strong maternal health outcomes, including the lowest unintended pregnancies and teen pregnancy rates in the country.”
Most New Hampshire family planning providers have not received federal Title X family planning funds since 2019 due to the Trump administration’s gag rule. The Biden administration and New Hampshire’s federal delegation have worked to reverse this policy, but federal funding will not return to the states until spring of 2022 at the earliest.
New Hampshire has the lowest unintended pregnancies and teen pregnancy rates in the country and some of the best maternal health outcomes, those health providers asserted.
Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy also reacted and stressed that DHHS concretely showed that, consistent with state law, no state family planning dollars are used for abortion care.
“Once again, Councilors Kenney, Stevens, Gatsas, and Wheeler have shown that their allegiance is to a misinformed political ideology rather than to the people of New Hampshire. Defunding these family planning centers has a direct negative impact on health care for 12,000 Granite Staters, including access to birth control, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screenings. I would like to thank Councilor Warmington for her repeated support of these contracts and her efforts to protect reproductive health care access for Granite Staters.”
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen also reacted to the vote.
“New Hampshire Republicans’ assault on women and their health care in New Hampshire is unconscionable. Their repeated decision to deny women autonomy when it comes to private and personal decisions around their health is wildly out of touch with Granite Staters’ values. I never thought I would see these kinds of attacks targeting women and families in the ‘Live Free or Die’ State,” said Shaheen. “Defunding family planning providers cut women’s access to essential services, like cancer screenings, maternal health, and reproductive care. This dangerous decision builds on New Hampshire Republicans’ anti-women agenda – from imposing an abortion ban to requiring costly and unnecessary ultrasounds – all as Roe v. Wade could soon be overturned. Putting lives at risk just to score cheap political points is even more egregious amid the deadly surge of the Omicron variant. I’m outraged by the Executive Council’s repeated, deliberate decision to put New Hampshire women in danger, and I’ll keep working at the federal level to secure resources for family planning providers and protect reproductive rights.”
FIRST REMOTE OPTION OFFERED SINCE PANDEMIC SURGE
The meeting was the first time since the fall and winter surge of the coronavirus that the governor allowed for remote access to the meeting by telephone. It comes at a time when the state has record numbers of citizens who are ill with COVID-19.
$1.5M BOAT DONATED
The council approved a donation of a 35-foot safe boat from George Wells valued at approximately $1,500,000. This safe boat, which will be owned by the state Fish and Game Department, will provide the Law Enforcement Division a permanently assigned vessel to the coastline of the state.
The governor said it was one of the larger donations that the state has seen in a while.
Executive Councilor Kenney said from an operational standpoint the gift is significant.
The boat has had little use and will replace an aging and a much smaller vessel. It offers a safer platform for workers in bad weather and will be used in search and rescue and fisheries compliance.
REAPPOINTMENT OF STRELZIN
The commission authorized the reappoint of Jeffery A. Strelzin as an Assistant Attorney General at a salary level of $120,000 within the Department of Justice.
The veteran who has handled some of the department’s highest-level investigations will have the job effective through December 29, 2026.
F. ANNE ROSS CONFIRMED TO PUC
Despite concerns raised by PUC Consumer Advocate Don Kreis, the council confirmed attorney F. Anne Ross to serve as a special commissioner to the Public Utilities Commission. Ross has worked as general counsel to the PUC and prior to that was the consumer advocate.
$57.5M PENNICHUCK WATER WORKS BONDS APPROVED
To deal with contaminated wells, improve water quality and quantity, and expand public water in southern New Hampshire, the Council held a public hearing and unanimously confirmed an amended resolution authorizing up to $57,500,000 in bonds for Pennichuck Water Works, Inc. in Amherst, Bedford, Derry, Epping, Hollis, Merrimack, Milford, Nashua, Newmarket, Pittsfield, Plaistow, and Salem.
The action will improve the collection, purification, storage or distribution of water, according to the Business Finance Authority.
Councilor Stevens said she wanted to make sure that the expanded hook-ups which will help with contamination issues related to PFAS are achieved. She called it “a very ambitious plan” and called it a “great project.”
Londonderry officials expressed concern for the funding. The town has four Superfund sites including Saint Gobain. It was not included in the bond protection area, Kenney noted.
Wheeler said the bonds will help the region and would be money well spent.
RENE PELLETIER NAMED NEW NHDES WATER DIVISION DIRECTOR
By unanimous vote, the Council confirmed the appointment of Rene Pelletier to serve as the Director of the Water Division at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
Pelletier has 48 years of experience with NHDES, during which he has worked in all water-related programs at the department and its predecessor, the Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission. For the past ten years, he has served as the Assistant Director of the Water Division.
NHDES Commissioner Bob Scott applauded the vote.
“Rene’s extensive technical expertise coupled with his strong working relationships with our legislative leaders, municipal officials, environmental groups, and other stakeholders have served him well over his years and will continue to greatly contribute to his ability to guide the Water Division into the future.”
MORE MONEY FOR VACCINE REGISTRY
The Council authorized additional funds to maintain and operate the state’s vaccine registry for COVID-19.
Councilor Gatsas asked about the request. He noted existing registry funds, which were previously said to be adequate. The vote was unanimous.
This is an amendment to an existing contract with Deloitte Consulting LLP of Concord to continue to provide ongoing maintenance and operation of the Vaccine & Immunization Network Interface for continued registration and vaccine administration for the COVID-19 response.
This increases the price by $1,499,250 from $4,869,757 to $6,369,007 using entirely federal funds to do so.
FUNDING TO RETAIN AND RECRUIT NURSES FOR THE STATE HOSPITAL
With 40 vacant positions, the Council authorized a 15 percent base hourly wage enhancement for nursing staff currently paid under the Institutional Nurse pay scale for recruitment and retention purposes.
The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, officials said, and it is very hard to find and in some cases retain staff.
Warmington said this is not the way to go about raises and said the state should be using the collective bargaining process.
The raise is effective through January 12, 2024.
Additionally, the Council authorized to continue 20 percent base hourly wage enhancement for Occupational Therapist I and II positions, Supervisor IV-OT/Rehab, and Administrator IV-OT/Rehab positions at the state hospital currently paid under the A000 pay schedule for recruitment and retention purposes.
SUNUNU CENTER CLOSURE DATE?
Gov. Chris Sununu said he would personally bulldoze the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester and move to a clinical model but he had no date specific for Warmington on when it would close. She was told it would not occur this year but that commissions were working on a plan to close it.
Warmington said she was resistant to authorizing spending more money to keep it open as was requested in a contract to institute a temporary 18 percent base hourly wage enhancement to Youth Counselor Trainee and Youth Counselor I positions, a temporary 16 percent base hourly wage enhancement to Youth Counselor II positions, and a temporary 14 percent base hourly wage enhancement to the Youth Counselor III positions currently.
Warmington said that the state has a dilemma and that if the state did not fund the Sununu Center it had to close.
Sununu said the state still has the responsibility to the children who are there to adequately fund it until it is closed.
“We need a bridge,” Shibinette said.
The salary increases were approved.
GATSAS EXPRESSES CONCERN FOR THE STATE’S REPUTATION PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM HARM
Citing the most recent case of a child who had had contact with the state disappearing, Councilor Ted Gatsas said the state is getting a negative reputation.
State and Manchester authorities are actively searching for Harmony Montgomery. A $100,000 reward for information on her whereabouts is being offered.
“The state is getting a black eye in what’s happening to the children of this state,” Gatsas said.
Health and Human Services officials declined to talk about the specifics of the case noting there is an active search.
STATE EMPLOYEES AT CONTRACT IMPASSE
Sununu said he has rejected and an impasse has been declared on a number of state employee contracts including for unionized workers in Transportation, Liquor, Safety and health care workers at the state hospital.
The council approved and accepted fact finders reports pursuant to an order of the Public Employee Labor Relations Board.
The matters are currently on appeal before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The state has 11,000 employees and is facing a crisis in hiring a number of positions, and is using the Council to approve group labor enhancement wage increases, which Warmington said is not following the proper labor negotiation process.
The Council did authorize wage enhancements for the Department of Corrections Wednesday which is projected to increase funding by $40,097 for the remainder of FY 2022.
HEATING FUNDS APPROVED
A number of contracts, through the American Rescue Plan Act, were approved to help low-income residents stay warm this winter.
Included was $4.3 million for Southwestern Community Services Inc., Keene; $2.7 million for Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, Dover; $5.1 million for the Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack Counties Inc., Concord; $5.8 million for Tri-County Community Action Program Inc., Berlin and $14 million for Southern NH Services of Manchester.
Additionally, more weatherization funds for homes were approved for each agency.
AFGHAN EVACUEE RESETTLEMENT FUNDS APPROVED
There are 225 Afghan evacuees coming to New Hampshire and the council authorized $408,330 in resettlement funds. They are mostly in Manchester and so far 59 are in Concord.
Gatsas said his hope is that they will be resettled throughout the state in 13 federally-authorized communities rather than focused on Manchester in his district.
Many are in hotels because no housing is available.
Councilors suggested the state send the federal government a request to provide adequate housing to accommodate these refugees.