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Gov. Sununu Says He Will Support Voluntary System for Paid Family Medical Leave

Allegra Boverman

Gov. Chris Sununu says he has a model for paid family and medical leave that's voluntary, citing his opposition to the mandatory proposal that passed the House during the last legislative session.

Sununu also says he'll work with federal officials and public-private partnerships to continue funding efforts to combat the opioid crisis long-term. Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with the governor on healthcare issues in the Granite State.

Morning Edition is interviewing gubernatorial candidates this week to discuss health policy.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

I want to turn your attention to what's on so many voters’ minds these days - the opioid crisis. You've got money secured to set up these addiction hubs across the state, but what are your plans for securing long term funding to make those hubs sustainable?

So let's talk about the hub and spoke model that we're creating in New Hampshire. It's incredibly unique, and it's something that we went down, worked with the administration. We proposed it we walk them through the steps, what it would look like. And the reason it's so important is there's a whole new direction that the state is going to take in providing rural access to care. Right now we have we have good programs and good providers in some of the bigger cities of the state, but one of the biggest barriers we find to families and individuals is getting that rural access. So now we're going to have our nine hubs. We're setting those up as of Jan. 1 across the state. And it's not just a treatment center or a recovery center, but it looks at everything from mental health assessment, workplace recovery programs, getting folks transitional housing, a whole variety of things that come into play in ensuring that we're walking hand in hand, if you will, with those that are facing addiction.

The reason this is so important is because right now our model, people go through treatment. Maybe they go through recovery. Maybe they get better, but a lot of them don't. A lot of them will get back into that very negative cycle of treatment and recovery. The costs are skyrocketing. This new model will help massively reduce the recidivism if you will of folks entering treatment and recovery. So they hopefully they go through at one time. They get themselves and their families onto a better path, a healthier path, for the long term. That overall can drastically reduce the long term costs. And that's what this is about, a very significant one time investment. And we have about $45 million coming in over the next two years to really get a system up and running that massively reduces the overall cost.

But again after the two plus years –

What do we do? Absolutely. When I came into office the alcohol fund only had about $3.5 million in it. I've tripled the amount of money into that program, and I've done it through a public private partnership and taken it off of the back of the taxpayers. We've gotten the hospitals involved and they've been a great partner in providing over $10.5 million a year, not for the next two years, but for the next five. So we've tripled the amount of money that we're going to have available to us to maintain these programs in the long term. Is this the last money we'll get out of the federal government? No, clearly it is not. They're always looking at new grants and new programs. This money is really designed for a one time, set up infrastructure money if you will, but combined with what we've been able to do with our long term funds here in the state, combined with some other federal monies that might come down the road, I have no doubt that this is a system that will be sustainable at a much lower cost with much better results for New Hampshire.

What about the workforce issue though surrounding healthcare in general and of course mental health specifically? We do have high turnover rates in the healthcare industry. It's difficult for people to get access to the already existing services in the state, because there's just not enough trained professionals. How do you get that workforce? How you retain them?

So the state is going to be making one of the biggest investments in healthcare workforce it has ever made. We're going to be looking to double the number of nurses coming out of UNH. We're going to expand programs in Keene. We're going to expand programs at Plymouth State, and make those investments that really matter. And it's not just for nurses. It's for clinicians, psychiatry, all these different areas of healthcare. The state's making very significant one time investments in this next budget cycle to make sure that healthcare workforce is not just talked about. We're actually going to do something about it, and put ourselves on the forefront of making sure that that is no longer a barrier to providing a better quality of service, a better product if you will, for the citizens of New Hampshire.

What about improving access to health insurance markets? Governor, is there anything that states individually can be doing to push forward themselves?

Well you know, our health insurance market was on the verge of collapse about a year ago, and we saw other states their healthcare exchanges fell apart. Ours didn't. We really worked with our partners. We worked with the federal government. We got the waivers that we wanted to get to allow the flexibility for insurance providers to maintain their status within the exchange market. We've broken down a lot of barriers of regulation. Because of what happened in the late 90s where we basically went down to one or just to insurers in the state, Anthem does a great job. I mean they really control a lot of that private market. They do a very good job with it, but you always want competition to come in. So we're trying to entice competition to come in. But you still got to be able to go out and kind of sell it, kind of market it.

You say you would support a voluntary system for paid family and medical leave, but but how would that actually work? No other states have been able to develop a voluntary system successfully. Did you have a model for that?

We do. We do. I'm very excited about the model that we're working on. It's again a public-private partnership that doesn't put the obligation in a mandate if you will and the employees, that doesn't trap employees into what is essentially an income tax, which is exactly what the Democrats plan did. By having a voluntary system, something that doesn't trap people into an income tax, works with a public private partnership. And also my plan is looking to actually include the state employees. Their plan didn't. My plan will. That's a real opportunity for the state. And yes, other states haven't done it. We're going to lead the nation I think in what we put together.

For a voluntary program wouldn't you also have the lowest income people [who] probably wouldn't necessarily be opting in to take this?

Right, I don't care whether you're low income or high income. If you want to opt in, you opt in. If you don't, you don't. I didn't understand your question maybe.

What I'm saying is I think for lower income people that may need that benefit the most, it will be less likely necessarily [for them] to voluntarily opt into the system.

Yeah, but that's their choice. If they want to opt in and they want to opt into the system, they can opt in and they get the benefits from that, and if they don't want opt in, then they don't get the benefits from that. It's their choice. It's not for the government to force people into a system.

Last legislative session 20 new caseworkers were added to DCYF. But last we've reported the division's director says they need more than 170 additional workers to keep up with the caseloads that they're seeing. How will you continue to address the divisions need for more resources?

So you know, one of the issues we have [is] even the available positions that we've created, and we've created I think with the two pieces of legislation, I think it's 33. The first budget did 20. I think we did another 15 or so in the child welfare bill, the most comprehensive child welfare reform bill that the state has done in 20 years. I'm very proud of that. [It] added even more workers. To the question you asked earlier, we're having trouble actually even filling those vacancies, right? You can add 100 new positions, but if you can't fill the first position, what's the point of the next 99?

So what we need to do is focus on wages, focus on the opportunity that we can create, whether it's through student loan repayment programs, investing in a workforce for ourselves so the workforce can start really building up. And as other additional workers and needs come online, absolutely you need to address that in the areas that are most of high need. That would be DCYF, mental health, these areas of healthcare that we've been talking about. That's where our priority and our investments are going to go.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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