State, hospital reach settlement over psychiatric staffing

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock private hospital has agreed to credit the state $75,000 and pay up to $77,500 on an independent review to "buy peace" and settle allegations it understaffed a state-run psychiatric facility.

The state signed a $36 million contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock last August to provide services at New Hampshire Hospital, the state hospital for mental health services. But state health officials said they learned in May that only eight to 10 general psychiatrists were being provided rather than the 11 required in the contract and that Dartmouth-Hitchcock hadn't assigned a dedicated geriatric psychiatrist.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu responded by forcing out the psychiatric hospital's chief executive, and the state invoked its rights to collect damages.

In a settlement announced Wednesday, Dartmouth-Hitchcock denied breaching the contract and accused the state of harming the hospital's reputation, but it agreed to credit the state $75,000. It also will pay up to $77,500 for an independent review of patient care from Nov. 1, 2016, to April 30, 2017.

"The parties agree that it is in their mutual best interest to compromise and settle, and 'buy peace' as to the disputes over staffing at (New Hampshire Hospital) and the state's statements about (Dartmouth-Hitchcock)," the settlement says.

When the staffing issue came to light, Sununu and state health officials said it didn't appear that quality of care had been hurt. But the issue was the latest twist in a long-running fight over whether the state provides enough mental health services. Waiting lists for treatment beds have skyrocketed, causing patients in need of help to wait in emergency rooms for days at a time.

Under the settlement, the allocation of Dartmouth-Hitchcock's staff will be reviewed to ensure it is adequate given that situation and the impact of the state's opioid epidemic on mental health services. The review, which will be completed by Dec. 1, also will take into account recent efforts to address those problems.

Under a new law signed in June, the state will contract with private hospitals and nonprofit facilities to set up 20 beds at designated receiving facilities for people subject to involuntary admission and 40 community-based beds to help people transition from New Hampshire Hospital.

The commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, Jeffrey Meyers, said he and Sununu are grateful that Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the state's only academic medical center, provides its services to New Hampshire Hospital.

"Both the state and Dartmouth-Hitchcock are committed to providing the best possible care for our family members, friends and neighbors suffering from mental illness and requiring treatment at New Hampshire Hospital," he said. "The state recognizes and values Dartmouth-Hitchcock's crucial role in improving the health of our citizens, and we look forward to working together to ensure that patients at NHH receive nothing less than the quality care they deserve."