Sep 12, 2016 11:32 PM

Dartmouth-Hitchcock contract controversy dominates gubernatorial race on primary eve

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD – A war of words over a controversial state contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock was front and center in the race for governor on the eve of New Hampshire’s primary.

The day started with a new attack from GOP gubernatorial candidate and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas at Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, a rival for the Republican nomination.

Sununu, Democratic councilor and gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, and the three other councilors last Wednesday voted unanimously to greenlight a $37 million contract for Dartmouth-Hitchcock to take over operations at New Hampshire’s state psychiatric hospital. Two days later, Dartmouth-Hitchcock announced it was laying off up to 460 people.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, the Executive Council, and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers all said they were unaware of the layoffs until reports about them circulated on Friday.

Gatsas, who for weeks had raised alarm bells regarding the pending contract with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Sunday called for Hassan and the Executive Council to cancel the contract, as did Sununu.

Monday morning Gatsas fired away at Sununu, writing in a release that Sununu “was asleep at the switch” and asked “where has Chris Sununu been?”

Speaking with NH1 News at the Puritan Backroom a couple of hours later, Gatsas said “I’ve been critical of the entire Council and the governor. I mean there were signs that showed up a long time before the other day when everybody was floored that they had bond downgrading. They had shortfalls in their revenues”

“Look the signs were there. They were going to wait until there was an investigation that was completed. They didn’t wait. If they had waited they would have seen this come up,” he added.

And he repeated his earlier attack, saying “I think they all fell asleep at the switch. That’s all they’re supposed to do is look at contracts, right. That’s all the council has to do.”

Speaking with NH1 News a few minutes later, as he arrived at the Puritan Backroom, Sununu responded to the criticism from Gatsas, saying “we were on top of this issue back in June before Mayor Gatsas even understood the issue. We were calling for it to be rebid, we were calling for more information. We were calling for the governor and the commissioner to do an investigation, which they just outright refused to do.”

“At the end of the day when this long term contract was presented to us two weeks, I wouldn’t sign it. I said you need to come forward with more information. Unfortunately they (Dartmouth-Hitchcock) refused to do it. They refused to bring us more information. We only have six weeks to go until the current contract ends. The risk is we will lose services in mental health if we don’t go forward with this,” Sununu explained

“The people are always going to come before a political battle. They have to. So we cannot risk losing that continuity of services. Now given what has happened two days later, when Dartmouth-Hitchcock reveals they’re going to layoff all these folks of course that’s critical information we should have known, that the governor and the commissioner should have known. We should have all had that at our fingertips and they didn’t disclose it to any of us,” Sununu continued.

Sununu then urged “that we cancel the contract and that we look at providing other options.”

Another of Sununu’s rivals for the GOP nomination, state Rep. Frank Edelblut of Wilton, also took aim at the Executive Council and the governor.

Speaking with NH1 News while he campaigned on Elm Street in Manchester, Edelblut said “whether it’s Maggie Hassan or Chris Sununu or Colin Van Ostern, they’ve been distracted campaigning and not paying attention to the job that they were elected to do, which is making sure that when we award a $36 million contract, which is a lot of tax payer money, that we know what’s behind it.”

Democratic tension

While most of the sparks over the contract were coming from the GOP field, there was some criticism among the Democratic candidates.

Mark Connolly, who served nearly a decade as the state’s top financial watchdog, told NH1 News that if he were on the Executive Council, “I would have cautioned a little more time to consider it because we had a lot of layoffs going on.”

“We had a suicide in Nashua. And I do think the onus is on Dartmouth-Hitchcock to explain why this information wasn’t out. And there was a delay on the vote and now we’re learning there should have been more of a delay here and we have to get to the bottom of it,” Connolly told NH1 News, after holding a campaign event at the Bridge Café in Manchester.

The suicide he was referring to occurred in late July, when a Nashua woman with a long history at the psychiatric hospital killed herself hours after being discharged. The incident is being investigated by the state.

Asked by NH1 News about the criticism directed at him and the other councilors, Van Ostern told reporters “I think what’s most important here is not politics, it’s patient care, and it’s absolutely that regardless of the announcements last week that Dartmouth-Hitchcock to be held to the exact details of the contract.”

“If there’s anything that would give anyone any reason to think that won’t be happening, I’ll be the first one to say that we should pull out of that contract,” Van Ostern said moments before canvassing for votes in Nashua’s Ward 3.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which is the state’s largest private employer, was the only bidder to take over management of the hospital. Dartmouth College had run facility for decades. The layoff notices are expected to begin circulating in October.

With Hassan challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte rather than running for re-election for a third-term, the race for governor is wide open.


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