FILE - New Hampshire DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette

In this March 8, 2020 photo, New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette speaks at a news conference in Concord, N.H. 

(The Center Square) – New Hampshire plans to spend more than $17 million in federal pandemic relief money to expand mental health services and reduce the number of psychiatric patients boarding in emergency rooms. 

A pair of proposals approved by the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee on Friday would authorize the state Department of Health and Human Services to divert $15 million in federal relief funds to build a 96-bed behavioral services hospital and $2.2 million for a "behavioral strike team" to address mental health emergencies involving adolescents. 

Portsmouth Regional Hospital and its parent company, HCA Healthcare, Inc., plan to build the new hospital with the state's $15 million contribution, which will help defray capital costs for the $45 million project. The yet-to-be-built, 96-bed Epping facility would operate under a seven-year contract. 

Likewise, the committee also approved the plan to spend $2.2 million on teams of mental health workers to respond to emergencies at a new psychiatric hospital recently purchased by the state. 

The money comes from the state's share of American Rescue Plan Act funding, a $1 trillion pandemic relief package signed by President Joe Biden. 

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette told the committee the funding to expand mental health services will help add more beds to a system that has been "operating at 100% capacity for more than 10 years." 

Mental health advocates say the shortage of beds in psychiatric facilities means that patients are “warehoused” in private hospitals for weeks – even months – as they wait for an opening in a state-run facility. Currently, New Hampshire has about 200 psychiatric beds, most in state-run facilities. 

As of last week, 20 adults and five children were waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities, according to state public health data.

In May, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order directing the state to increase access to mental health services and add more beds at state-run psychiatric facilities to reduce the number of patients being held involuntarily in emergency rooms while they await placement.  

The order followed a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that chided the Sununu administration for boarding psychiatric patients awaiting beds. 

In October, lawmakers approved a request from Sununu to spend $15.1 million to buy Hampstead Hospital, a 111-bed facility which has contracted with the state to provide in-patient psychiatric services for children.

The mental health funding approved by the fiscal committee now moves to the Executive Council for consideration.