New Hampshire, hospitals resolve lawsuit over psychiatric patients

CONCORD, NH — New Hampshire hospitals and state health officials said Wednesday they will work together to solve the state’s long-standing problem of holding psychiatric patients in hospital emergency rooms, a move that ends years of litigation.

A federal judge who had declared the practice unconstitutional in February followed up in May with an order giving the state one year to develop a system under which people would be held for no more than six hours before being transferred to another facility for treatment.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said it would waive its right to appeal the order, while the hospitals agreed to drop similar lawsuits in state and federal court.

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Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, said hospitals and the state showed they can work together during the coronavirus pandemic, and that he looks forward to further cooperation.

“This case has always been about ensuring patients suffering from an acute psychiatric crisis are able to receive the care they need by immediately being transferred to a healthcare facility specially designed for that purpose,” he said.

New Hampshire has long struggled with a mental health system that advocates say is overburdened at every stage, from initiation of treatment to reentry into the community. Emergency room boarding, with people in crisis waiting days or weeks for treatment due to a shortage of inpatient beds, has become a flashpoint and focus of multiple lawsuits.

Judge Landya McCafferty’s rulings in February and May came in a lawsuit filed in 2018 by patients who argued they were involuntarily held in emergency rooms without the opportunity to contest their detentions. She agreed with a group of hospitals that joined the lawsuit, saying the state was violating the rights of hospitals by seizing their property.

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On Tuesday, there were 45 adults and four children boarding in New Hampshire emergency departments waiting for inpatient psychiatric beds, according to the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

State health commissioner Lori Weaver said she is committed to eliminating those waiting lists and urged all stakeholders to act with “urgency, unity and compassion.”

“We will achieve this important milestone by working with our partners throughout the healthcare system to increase access to mental health services for all residents,” she said in a statement.

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