Cushing keeps up fight over NH’s secure psychiatric unit

Cushing keeps up fight over NH’s secure psychiatric unit 

By Max Sullivan, msullivan@seacoastonline.comPosted May 5, 2018 at 5:01 PM

CONCORD — State officials say transporting patients to the secure psychiatric unit at the state prison does not violate constitutional rights despite what some lawmakers describe as the unjust criminalization of mental patients.

The secure psychiatric unit (SPU), located adjacent the state prison in Concord, has been described as Dickensian by state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. He has advocated for improvements to the management of involuntarily committed patients who cannot be safely housed at the state hospital, from calling on a new facility to built to having the SPU accredited as a psychiatric hospital.

While other lawmakers have said Cushing may be right in pushing for improving the state’s management of those patients, they say funding makes it difficult to address each need in the state’s health care system.

Representatives on the House Health and Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, said the Legislature is faced with many needs related to care for mental illness that are costly. Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, a committee member, noted the state Division of Children, Youth and Families is currently managing more cases than the individual case workers can manage and there are some cases “falling through the cracks” because, “simply there’s only so many hours in the day.”

“More money needs to go to that, as well,” Pearson said. “More money needs to go to the opioid crisis and I can think of several others. There’s a lot of real legitimate needs. Not fake stuff, not ‘gimme, gimme,’ but real needs, and there’s only so much money to go around.”

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said she understands Cushing’s concerns but said the SPU is a legitimate psychiatric care facility that the state Supreme Court has ruled can be a place to which patients may be transported. The court ruled in 1986 that bringing patients to the SPU did not violate any constitutional rights.

The case involved patient Dana Champagne, who was found to be incompetent to stand trial for murdering his parents. He was civilly committed to the state hospital and then was transferred to the SPU, leading to the court challenge.

Patients without criminal charges do at times co-mingle with those who are brought there from the state’s prisons or county jails, but Edwards said staff are present to monitor their interactions. The facility is staffed with social workers, doctors and nurses in addition to the correctional officers that monitor the SPU. Those officers are specially trained in mental health procedures and techniques, Edwards said.

“The patients are not being treated like the inmates are treated,” Edwards said. “They’re being treated as they would be at a psychiatric hospital.”

Cushing has filed legislation for years that would take patients out of the SPU or improve the facility. His efforts earned him the honor of “Legislator of the Year” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness last month.

This week, his bill to require the SPU to be accredited as a psychiatric hospital passed the Senate, though it was amended to now require it be accredited as a behavioral health facility. Cushing said the amendment was a disappointment and he plans to vote against the bill when it goes to committee of conference.

“Taking someone who has never committed a crime and putting them into the same clinic with people who are there for rape and murder and co-mingling them... it’s not the kind of health care that those people need,” Cushing said.

Some lawmakers, including House Speaker Gene Chandler, said this week they were not familiar enough with the state’s practice of housing involuntarily committed patients at the state SPU. Pearson said he did not discount the potential for Cushing to be right but said he needed to be more informed.

State Sen. Dan Innis, R-New Castle, said it is possible housing patients at the SPU is a topic lawmakers may also feel uncomfortable discussing. Innis said he would like support improving the accreditation of the SPU as a psychatric hospital, but he voted for Cushing’s bill this week despite the amendment. He said while Cushing may be disappointed with the amendment, the bill as amended is better than the status quo.

“Sometimes you have to chip away at these issues and not be an absolutist,” Innis said. “Nothing’s perfect in this world, and sometimes you do the best you can.”

Andrew Gorrill