CONCORD, N.H. — A new law that expands mental health services in New Hampshire to comply with a court settlement is a good start but more work must be done to ensure the quality and availability of care, advocates and lawmakers said Friday.
The law authorizes expenditure of $11 million in state and federal funds to strengthen community-based mental health services and provide coverage to thousands of people under the bipartisan health care expansion plan.
A federal lawsuit charged the state with needlessly confining people in mental wards and hospitals because it lacked community treatment options. The suit said the state was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and asked a federal judge to order New Hampshire to expand community services and crisis intervention programs. In the suit, the advocates said the state was segregating the mentally ill in institutions and not providing less restrictive alternatives in the community.
Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the bill into law on Friday as Amanda Dube, one of the lead plaintiffs in the 2012 lawsuit, looked on.
"People who experience mental illness are our friends, our family members, and our neighbors who deserve the same level of compassionate care and treatment that we would expect for any other health care need," Hassan said. "This bill, which really funds the first step of the settlement, is an important step forward."
Hassan praised Dube, 25, for leading the cause and sharing her story.
Diagnosed at various times with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder, Dube said she was 12 when she was first hospitalized and described a pattern of repeated admissions — 20 over the course of 10 years — that robbed her of the educational and social experiences of adolescence.
Dube said she will continue to monitor how the state cares for people suffering from mental illness.
"I'm very happy that people are now going to get the services they need," she said.
Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called the new law significant but stressed it is only the start.
"This bill will not immediately resolve the challenges that our community mental health system faces and it should be noted that the settlement agreement specifically only addresses adults, not children," he said.
The lawsuit came 10 months after a federal investigation found the state's mental health system failed people in need and three years after the state's own Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner, Nicholas Toumpas, labeled it a "broken system."
The federal investigators said the state relied too heavily on confining the mentally ill in the New Hampshire State Hospital and its nursing home component, Glencliff Home.