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Sununu, officials celebrate groundbreaking for forensic psychiatric hospital
New Hampshire Union Leader - 9/1/2023
Aug. 31—CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu and top state officials broke ground Thursday on a landmark project — building a more humane residence for the mentally ill considered too dangerous to stay at New Hampshire Hospital (NHH) in Concord.
PC Construction Co. of South Burlington, Vermont, will spend the next two years building a $42 million secure psychiatric forensic hospital with 24 beds on land adjacent to the NHH complex off Pleasant Street.
Sununu said for decades elected officials and mental health stakeholders have sought to end the practice of housing these individuals on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.
The state-of-the-art treatment facility will provide more services to individuals considered dangerous and mentally ill but not convicted of any crime.
"We have always said we are making a commitment to fulfill that promise and finally we are doing it," Sununu said.
A decade ago, lawmakers had decided $30 million could do this job.
Thanks to construction inflation, the bids came in up to $45 million and the Executive Council approved the lower of two bidders after state agency officials trimmed the cost by doing without some optional expenses.
"A lot of projects are getting stalled but not this one; this is full speed ahead," Sununu said.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Weaver said this is a linchpin of her agency's effort to expand capacity for mental health treatment in keeping with a 10-year action plan.
"Today we celebrate a new vision for mental health treatment in New Hampshire," Weaver said.
The new complex will provide services the mentally ill citizens have never received inside the state prison compound, she said.
"We take comfort that forensic patients will receive treatment with dignity and not stigma," Weaver added.
State could get more federal aid for care
Ellen Lapointe, CEO with New Hampshire Hospital, said once built, this new complex can open after the state receives federal accreditation and has enough staffing given the chronic workforce shortage in the mental health field.
Sununu said it is also possible the new facility will make New Hampshire eligible to receive federal Medicaid grant money for qualified, low-income individuals that the state could not receive to reimburse for their current care.
"If that's the case, absolutely we will go for it," Sununu said.
State taxpayer money will provide 82% of construction costs with federal grants providing the rest.
State Reps. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover, and Maureen Mooney, R-Merrimack, attended the ceremony to emphasize this issue has had bipartisan support at the State House for many years.
For a decade, the late House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton led the charge for this reform.
Some have advocated naming the new complex in his memory.
Cushing died in March 2022 after his diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer.
The group to live in the new forensic hospital will include those who did a crime but didn't stand trial because of their mental illness, those found not guilty at trial because of their illness, and others who are not lawbreakers but considered too dangerous to get treated with the other residents at NHH.
The 41,000-square-foot. secure facility will have separate wings for male and female residents.
State officials said a 16-foot high fence of wood and steel construction would keep residents from leaving the complex.
Currently there are 22 civilly committed patients housed at the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) at the prison that is not accredited.
Mental health advocates, legislators and the U.S. Commission on Human Rights all concluded the state prison site was not an appropriate place for mental health treatment.
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