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State asks for help promoting New Hampshire's Paid Family Medical Leave program

A promotional post from the program's Facebook page.
New Hampshire Paid Family and Medical Leave
/
Facebook
A promotional post from the program's Facebook page.

State officials are asking for help promoting New Hampshire’s Paid Family Medical Leave program, saying not enough people are aware of it despite an ongoing marketing campaign.

The program, which launched a year ago, allows employers and individual workers to buy paid family and medical leave insurance. The benefit pays 60% of someone’s wages for up to six weeks while they deal with a health condition, care for a family member or spend time with a new child.

The voluntary program was Gov. Chris Sununu’s answer to Democrat-backed plans for universal paid leave funded by payroll taxes. Sununu touted his opt-in model as a way to expand that coverage for as many workers as possible, without imposing a payroll tax.

The state tapped insurance carrier MetLife to administer the program. It also has a $1.9 million contract with the firm Mason Inc. for marketing and outreach. (The state is also paying to promote the program on NHPR, a process handled independently of our newsroom. NHPR sponsors have no role in our editorial processes.)

So far, however, participation has been limited.

As of early December, 210 employers representing about 9,000 employers had signed on, plus another 644 individuals who bought coverage on their own. Counting the roughly 8,800 state employees who are also included in the plan, the total enrollment represented less than 3% of New Hampshire’s workforce. (The state did not provide updated figures before this story published.)

In a letter sent Monday to 19 New Hampshire-based nonprofits and advocacy groups, officials from New Hampshire’s departments of insurance, employment security and administrative services said they are pleased with what they called “robust enrollment.”

“However, in recent months, despite best efforts to market PFML to employers and individuals, we have encountered situations where individuals and families could have benefited from this coverage but were either unaware of the program’s existence or unsure how to enroll,” they wrote.

The state officials asked the organizations to distribute information about the program and help people navigate the enrollment process. They also want them to help get the word out about the open enrollment period for individuals wishing to buy coverage for 2024, which runs through Jan. 29.

Some of the organizations who received the letter have pushed for universal paid leave policies and criticized the governor’s plan as inadequate, a detail acknowledged by the state officials asking for help.

“Despite differing perspectives on the optimal organization and structure of this benefit, the Granite State Paid Family Medical Leave program is now available,” the letter states, adding that the organizations collectively “serve individuals and families who would benefit from joining the program.”

The AARP’s New Hampshire chapter is one of the groups that received the letter. State Director Christina FitzPatrick said they’ll likely act on the request, possibly by sending information out to their email list. She said paid leave can make a big difference to people caring for family members with health conditions.

“Having paid family leave is really important,” she said. “We also know that the state program has had relatively poor take-up. And so promoting the program is good to let people know what's available.”

Another recipient, the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, said they were “encouraged” by officials’ outreach to a broad set of stakeholders.

“We believe all workers should have access to paid leave for birth, adoption, or to care for a loved one,” the organization said in a statement.

The foundation said it hopes state officials continue to seek their input “to define success, evaluate the program and who it serves and who it leaves out, and discuss how we can improve and expand paid leave in New Hampshire.”

But some advocates said they weren’t surprised at the low enrollment and argued it exposes flaws in the program’s design.

“The policy itself really isn’t a program that New Hampshire residents need,” said MacKenzie Nicholson, the senior director for the advocacy group MomsRising in New Hampshire. “It’s a stopgap measure.”

Nicholson said a universal program would be more sustainable and ensure it’s available to everyone who needs it. She would also like to see a more generous benefit, such as 12 weeks instead of six, and something closer to full wage replacement to make sure it’s available to low-wage workers.

“They can’t live off of 60%,” she said.

Amanda Sears, the New Hampshire state director for the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, has also advocated for a mandatory paid family leave program that would offer universal coverage. She questioned what the state was getting for its $1.9 million marketing budget.

“It seems strange to me to send out a letter asking family advocates to boost their insurance sales, you know, two weeks before open enrollment ends,” she said. “It seems like a bizarre Hail Mary pass to save a poorly designed program.”

State officials say the program achieves the goal of making paid family and medical leave insurance available to any Granite Stater who wishes to buy, and they expect enrollment to grow over time.

“The legislature and Governor have determined that the voluntary, opt-in approach of the PFML program as adopted aligns with New Hampshire's commitment to individual choice and best reflects our state's values,” a spokesman for the Insurance Department said in a statement.

“Granite Staters are no longer engaging in a policy or political debate about PFML – the program is in place and available to help families who need it.”

Sununu and other officials have said the voluntary paid family leave program is the first of its kind nationally. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, has since rolled out a similar program.

More information about the New Hampshire Paid Family Medical Leave program is available on its website. Individual premiums are capped at $5 per week.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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