CONCORD, N.H. >> Officials say New Hampshire's state-run mental health hospital will remain fully staffed through the summer despite an ongoing labor dispute that is sending 12 psychiatric employees out the door.
But the workers set to leave New Hampshire Hospital on July 1 say patient care will be jeopardized.
The state Executive Council voted Wednesday to approve a four-month contract extension for services at New Hampshire Hospital, which treats people who face involuntary mental health commitments. For years, Dartmouth College's school of medicine has contracted with the state to provide psychiatrists for the hospital. But amid restructuring at the college, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is taking over next month.
The shift sparked the labor dispute, with 12 of the 19 employees now working under contract saying Dartmouth-Hitchcock refused to negotiate employment terms in good faith. They include psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses and, as of now, they won't continue their employment July 1. Sean List, the departing employees' attorney, said the hospital won't be able to provide the same level of care without those employees.
"It's not the best option to ensure quality, continued care at the hospital," he said.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock and New Hampshire Hospital officials disagree. They promise care will continue uninterrupted, although neither group will say how many new employees have been hired. Jeff Meyers, the state health commissioner, said the four-month extension gives him time to re-bid the contract if Dartmouth-Hitchcock can't meet the terms.
New Hampshire has struggled to provide adequate mental health services for years. Bob MacLeod, the state hospital's chief executive, warned the hospital would need to cut back on services if the contract were rejected. In supporting the contract, the executive councilors and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan said maintaining patient care is the top priority.
"I think we have to keep focused on the people that we are charged with serving and caring for," Hassan said.
With the contract's approval, MacLeod said all hospital units will operate normally and a long-delayed opening of a 10-bed crisis unit will proceed in early July.
Several councilors said they'd like to see the labor dispute resolved or the contract put out again for bid. Ellen Minerva, a psychiatrist at the state hospital for nearly five years, said it's a "travesty" that the state is working with an employer that won't negotiate fairly.
John Kacavas, Dartmouth-Hitchcock's general counsel, said patient care is the organization's top priority.
Under the contract, Dartmouth-Hitchcock also provides staffing for the Sununu Youth Services Center for juvenile offenders and Glencliff Home.