Hampstead Behavioral Hospital for Youths Is Coming Through ‘Rocky’ Time

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Paula Tracy photo

Morissa Henn, deputy HHS Commissioner and Commissioner Lori Weaver stand behind Gov. Chris Sununu at the Executive Council meeting Wednesday. Also pictured is NHPR reporter Todd Bookman.


HAMPSTEAD – It’s been a “rocky” time at the state’s new Hampstead Hospital Residential Treatment Facility in recent weeks but state officials think things are improving.

Now that a single troubled teen who caused multiple calls for local law enforcement and medical services to aid workers has been moved out and a comprehensive look at responses to incidents is being addressed, Gov. Chris Sununu and top Health and Human Services officials say they believe things there are stabilizing and have expressed confidence with the contractor for services.

Morissa Henn, Health and Human Services Deputy Commissioner, said the behavioral hospital for youths and young adults is going through a “rocky time.”

There have been press reports of multiple calls for services there including several incidents in which staff were seriously injured.

Draft minutes of the town of Hampstead Selectmen’s meeting for March 11 indicate that the hospital has created a Psychological Emergency Response Team that will act internally and safety ambassadors in each unit.

The draft minutes indicate Hampstead Selectman Laurie Warnock briefed the selectmen March 11 with state officials in Concord and noted while there have always been calls to the facility when it was privately operated, the change in population of the residents being treated there has led in some cases to more calls for service. 

Sununu spoke to reporters in his office Wednesday and said calls for services have fluctuated with the population being served. He said one individual patient caused multiple calls for services and has now been moved out. Sununu believes things will be better going forward.

The hospital has reopened admissions and now has a census of about 37 patients with fewer than 10 waiting in emergency rooms around the state for care, state officials said.

Some youths from New Hampshire who used to have to be treated out-of-state and in some cases were in placements that the state had to remove them from, have moved in to the facility, said Lori Weaver, Commissioner of Health and Human Services.

Still, the numerous law enforcement responses to problems at the hospital with combative patients assaulting staff has caused alarm bells at the Executive Council table.

Wellpath Recovery Solutions, which won the contract on a sole-source, non-competitive bid “has grossly under-reported the number of calls to local law enforcement,” said Janet Stevens, Executive Councilor from Rye, a Republican.

Since January she counted 187 calls and they have reported 40.

Henn said if you want to add up every 9-1-1 call rather than count by the actual incidents, the numbers vary. 

“I stand by numbers of 184 calls made by Wellpath to Hampstead Police /Fire vs the 40 reported by Wellpath,” Councilor Stevens said. 

According to the March 11 draft minutes of the Hampstead Selectmen’s meeting, State Police have responded to 40 calls since Jan. 1.

And the selectmen were told that the hospital’s needs are taxing to the Emergency Medical Services personnel noting that a typical call is 15 to 20 minutes long while the average at the hospital is 28 to 30 minutes.

Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, a Republican, asked if these were the same population of kids at the Sununu Youth Services Center and how the responses compare?

Weaver said it is a different group though there may be a bit of crossover. 

The Sununu Center is a locked facility for youths and Hampstead is a psychiatric residential treatment center for youths, it was explained. 

The state has plans to close the Sununu Center in Manchester and build a smaller, more treatment-centered rather than incarceration-type facility. It will be on the 100-acre Hampstead property which could open by July 2026.

Hampstead officials were told by Warnock the Youth Detention Center is “a done deal.”

Sununu said it makes sense to co-locate services there. The new Youth Detention Center facility will be built on the property at 218 East Road in Hampstead, which has been a behavioral hospital since 1974.

Weaver told Executive Councilors and the governor they are now taking kids who would have been sent out of state in the past for treatment.

“There is going to be some rockiness” and getting to the right level of staff, she said.

“It’s not unprecedented, not unheard of,” Weaver said to have a period of adjustment for the newly purchased state facility like this.

Sununu said, “I think they are doing a very good job down there, I really do,” but he acknowledged the concerns he has been hearing are valid.

He noted that while the state bought the facility from a private organization and the land now is not on the tax rolls, it did receive a payment in lieu of taxes to help absorb some of the impact, but he did not indicate a readiness to send more funds for local police and fire response.

In late October, 2021 the Executive Council unanimously approved $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase Hampstead Hospital, calling it the quickest fix and the best deal to address the hospital emergency room “boarding crisis” for children in need of residential mental health care.

The need for child mental health care had more than tripled during the pandemic, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness-NH which applauded the purchase. 

At the time, 25 children were waiting in emergency rooms for mental health care.

The licensed, 111-bed private mental health hospital in Southern New Hampshire had 45 in its care at the time of the sale.

A lack of staffing in general has been a part of the state’s issues with the emergency room boarding crisis but it has also been the fact that the state does not have enough residential treatment facilities in communities to allow patients to move out of the critical beds.

Hospitals took the state to court on the matter and won, with a judge saying the state needs to end the emergency room boarding crisis. 

Back when the state was buying Hampstead Hospital, officials said it could provide much more service for children statewide and become an 80- to 90- bed facility with specialty care options.

Lori Shibinette, who at the time was commissioner of Health and Human Services said “we have the potential to double the current capacity and also do specialty care,” including for young adults age 18 to 25 who are adults but possess a lack of maturity to be in the adult system, she told the council.

In the end, the state closed on the deal for the hospital in June 2022 for $13 million.

Henn said this week she has reviewed incident reports and finds the vendor is in compliance with the state contract, but Stevens, whose district includes Hampstead, said the matter bears careful scrutiny.

Henn said there have been recent meetings with local officials and staff and said she believes things will become less rocky in the future.

While Sununu said concerns are “valid” about Wellpath, “very real and we take them very seriously.”

“So the call load increased early last year, it went down last summer. It increased with a couple individual incidents lately. My sense is it has stabilized.”

“Hampstead is safe. It is providing great care for those individuals,” Sununu said. Most of the news driven over the past couple of weeks was really a single individual. A couple of that individual’s multiple incidents. That individual is off to a different facility. But again, we are taking a higher level of care for the specialization of individuals. That is going to have…an understanding of the skills and specializations that go with that.

“So, I think they are doing a very good job down there. I really do. Of course we take any sort of violence or aggressive nature towards our employees incredibly seriously and always want to challenge ourselves to upgrade our standards and our ability to provide a safe working environment,” Sununu said. “We are going to continue to monitor it.”

Justin Looser, chief executive officer for Hampstead Hospital Residential Treatment Center, was not immediately available for comment Friday.

CORRECTION: A previous version wrongly attributed a quote. Councilor Stevens said: “I stand by numbers of 184 calls made by Wellpath to Hampstead Police /Fire vs the 40 reported by Wellpath.”

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