Dartmouth Hitchcock to take over psychiatric treatment for children at state-run hospital

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 05-16-2024 2:58 PM

Over the objections of mental health advocates and others two years ago, the state chose a private company that primarily works with incarcerated adults to provide psychiatric treatment to children at Hampstead Hospital.

With that $52.5 million contract up, the Department of Health and Human Services is replacing Wellpath Recovery Services with Dartmouth Health, which has provided behavioral health treatment at New Hampshire Hospital and the Glencliff Home, a residential facility for people with developmental disabilities, for nearly 30 years.

The department did not return a message asking why it wants to part ways with Wellpath, which has been criticized for its care of inmates by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Disability Law Center. It was all also unclear whether Wellpath was one of the two organizations that submitted a bid for the two-year contract.

A message to Wellpath, which is based in Nashville, was not returned.

The state purchased Hampstead Hospital in 2022 with $15.5 million in federal pandemic aid to expand the state’s treatment for children and young adults. At the time, prior DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the state chose Wellpath without seeking bids from other providers because there was not time to go through an extensive bidding process.

The department put the new contract out to bid in November. Shibinette’s successor, Commissioner Lori Weaver, told the Executive Council Wednesday that Dartmouth scored highest.

As of Tuesday, approximately 30 of Hampstead’s 74 beds were full, with five children waiting for admission, according to the department’s tracker. Weaver said she hopes to open up the additional beds by recruiting more staff.

The council unanimously approved Weaver’s $9.5 million request to expand its partnership with Dartmouth. Doing so will bring the state’s existing two-year contract with Dartmouth for behavioral health care in all three locations from $61.5 million to $71.1 million.

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The existing 170 Hampstead staff members have been asked to stay on as state employees.

“We hope that they all stay,” Weaver said. “We want them to continue to provide the care and not miss a beat with the work that they’ve been doing. They’re great staff, and we’re lucky to have them.”

Weaver told councilors that partnering with Dartmouth at Hampstead makes sense for a number of reasons.

Dartmouth will continue the treatment model it’s offering at New Hampshire Hospital and the Glencliff Home, which mental health advocates like NAMI New Hampshire have supported, Weaver wrote in her request to the council. Dartmouth can leverage positions in the other locations, and monitoring the work of just a single provider would be easier than overseeing two, she told the council.

The $9.5 million for Hampstead Hospital would cover the annual cost of a chief medical officer, medical director, psychiatrists, advanced practice registered nurses, and a behavioral analyst for about 890 people ages 5 to 25, according Weaver’s request.

Weaver told councilors the department will seek to repurpose additional funding for several other positions, including counselors, nurses, social workers, and pharmacists.

Susan Stearns, executive director at NAMI New Hampshire, said Monday she supports expanding Dartmouth’s treatment to Hampstead because her community has been so pleased with the care family members have received at the state hospital. She experienced the same, she said, when her family member was hospitalized.

“This (existing partnership) between the state and Dartmouth has really ensured that Granite Staters who need that level of care have access to some of the highest quality care in the country,” she said. “We know this has worked well for people in our state. Building upon that makes sense.”

Audra Burns, spokesperson for Dartmouth Health, said that level of care will continue at Hampstead.

“We are proud of the health care innovations and compassionate care we provide in communities throughout New Hampshire, including the specialized clinical leadership and psychiatric services at state-run facilities such as New Hampshire Hospital,” she said.