One of the few undeniably positive developments that came about during the last 18 months of Covid was the use of Zoom and other virtual platforms to keep NH citizens, health care providers and advocates abreast of what is happening in Concord. Live access to legislative hearings and floor sessions, rules hearings, and Executive Council meetings was a godsend, particularly for those of us in the North Country. Hearings and work sessions on legislation and House and Senate floor sessions were available in real time on Zoom, and then on YouTube for later consumption.
If you don’t live in the North Country, you don’t understand the burden of traveling eight or more hours every week to meetings which take place almost exclusively in the state capital. As the CEO of Northern Human Services, I estimate that being able to participate via Zoom over the past year and a half saved me more than 30,000 miles on my car’s odometer, not to mention the non-driving time I could spend working with staff and the people we serve affected by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, and acquired brain injury.
Removing this option for virtual access, which happened when the Governor’s Emergency Order was lifted in June, has created a void, and puts the CEOs of health care facilities like mine in a quandary: do I now make staff travel (unnecessarily, because the technology exists and works for us to participate virtually); and do I put staff in harm’s way by sending them to in-person meetings where many are unvaccinated and don’t wear masks? Some older staff or those with underlying health conditions are seeing early retirement as a more viable option.
Ironically, the Commission to Study Telehealth Services, created by the 2020 legislature to expand telehealth coverage and ensure payment parity, only meets in person, in Concord, while many who benefit most from telehealth are in the North Country. This disconnect would be humorous if it didn’t have such a potentially damaging impact on the future provision of services. We know that mental health problems, especially among children, increased during Covid, so it only makes sense to provide more, not fewer, opportunities for the use of telehealth. The Commission needs to hear from many voices, all over the state, as it conducts its work and develops recommendations for legislation.
Legislative staff had a sharp learning curve to master the technology and help legislators use it, and we very much appreciate that. But this was not a one-off and shouldn’t be abandoned now. The Covid pandemic is not over and we don’t know what and when the next pandemic will be. New Hampshire needs to join the 21st century and modernize the infrastructure and increase staffing at the statehouse and Legislative Office Building to accommodate the continued need for remote access. Maine did this years ago and we could follow their lead.
I’ll close by citing New Hampshire’s Right to Know law: “Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.” We need to adhere to this standard, which has been in place since 1967, and which politicians and public figures of every stripe often swear by. Our mental health is worth it.
Eric Johnson is CEO of Northern Human Services in Conway, which provides professional support and services to people affected by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance abuse, acquired brain injury or related disorders in over 60 towns in the North Country.