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N.H. Hospitals Pledge To Top Off Alcohol Fund For 5 Years

Casey McDermott, NHPR
On hand for the announcement were: DHHS Commissioner Jeff Meyers, Catholic Medical Center CEO Joseph Pepe, Gov. Chris Sununu, Senate President Chuck Morse, N.H. Hospital Association President Steve Ahnen and Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Joanne Conroy.

New Hampshire hospitals are stepping up to make sure the state’s alcohol fund is financially sound for the next five years.

Gov. Chris Sununu made the announcement Friday morning, joined by Senate President Chuck Morse, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeff Meyers and health executives from across the state.

Altogether, New Hampshire’s 26 hospitals are expected to collectively contribute about $50 million toward the alcohol fund. That, in turn, will be used for prevention, treatment and recovery programs for all kinds of substance misuse issues.

While New Hampshire law mandates that 5 percent of state liquor profits be put into this fund, the Legislature has historically diverted that money elsewhere.

Michele Merritt, who leads the advocacy group New Futures, said the hospitals’ funding commitment marks a significant milestone for the state.

“The announcement today marks the first time in 18 years that we will have a fully funded alcohol fund in this state,” Merritt said. “So it shouldn’t be taken lightly, the impact that can have.”

Exactly how the new infusion of hospital money will be spent will be up to the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery, which is responsible for administering the alcohol fund. But the governor has his own “wish list” of priorities.

“I think some of the areas we need to focus on is better access to treatment, regional access – you want to have more treatment points, especially out in the rural communities,” Sununu said. “If you look at the rate of addiction we’re seeing right now, especially up in the North Country, that’s severe.”

Sununu also signaled an interest in finding ways to make the “Safe Stations” program more sustainable and building out a more robust, age-appropriate drug prevention curriculum for students as young as first grade.

“You’re not necessarily going to be talking about fentanyl in the first grade, of course, but start talking about good things and bad things, and that builds as the kids get older,” Sununu said. “So in the fourth and fifth grade we’re talking about what heroin is. These kids are seeing it. We have to be aggressive about talking about it.”

Moving forward, New Hampshire is also hoping to use money from the alcohol fund to support Medicaid expansion. The governor says the hospitals' money will not be used to directly pay for that program but will help to “back-fill” the alcohol fund after money is taken out for that purpose.

“Medicaid is on its own path. That was passed through the Senate. It was passed through the House. That's moving forward,” Sununu said. “These funds are really to deal with the substance use disorder issue.”

When lawmakers last renewed Medicaid expansion in 2016, they arranged to have “voluntary donations” from hospitals cover part of the state’s share of funding the program.

But in August 2017 the federal government told New Hampshire, definitively, that this funding scheme was illegal because, in their view, there was too close a connection between the hospitals’ donations and the viability of the program.

“The fundamental consideration for provider-related donations … is whether there is an expectation that the donating provider, provider class, or any related entity can expect to receive – in a direct or indirect manner – all or any portion of the donation back through Medicaid or other payments,” an official with the federal agency that oversees Medicaid wrote at the time.

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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