Lewis: 2010 dismantling of NH’s public health infrastructure haunts us today

There’s too much evidence of what the costs of not making the investments look like

Michael Lewis

Just a few Sundays ago, my family and I arrived home to Concord from February break and prepared for the school week ahead. Like hundreds, if not thousands, of families across the state, we had traveled to some other place and back again (in our case, to and from Jefferson, NH), as news about COVID-19 spread from China into Europe and across oceans to the United States.

As the hours of Sunday passed and we started to prepare our kids to go back to school to rejoin so many other children from the community also returning from vacationing elsewhere, we expected to hear from state public health and education officials about how we should prepare ourselves and our kids to fight contagion in our schools. Lunchtime hit. We heard nothing. The sun began to set. Nothing. The kids went to sleep. No phone calls, no emails, no communication of information from state or local officials about kids in schools. Nothing about hand wipes or social distancing or when to keep kids home and when to send them back into the schools. Maybe the morning would shed some light. No such luck.

And so, as this virus spread throughout the world, my children, like thousands of New Hampshire children, went back into our schools with so many others. And adults went back to work, whether in New Hampshire or in Massachusetts. We continued to do so even as of Friday (March 13) as a hazy sense of increasing risk told hold, with Massachusetts facing an outbreak that looks just like Italy’s two weeks ago, according to a report from Bloomberg from the day before.

As a concerned member of the public, I attended the March 13 meeting of the fiscal committee of the legislature and listened with increased distress as the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services claimed that Covid-19 is not being spread through our communities.

She made these claims while acknowledging that she does not have the testing kits necessary to confirm her analysis and wouldn’t for another two weeks.

Rather than promote caution in the absence of data, however, DHHS and its executive branch enablers continued to downplay evidence from other jurisdictions and mute their discouragement of mass social gatherings, where our neighbors and fellow states are taking greater safety precautions.

Each hour of denial they dispensed throughout the state was a lost opportunity to flatten the curve of a viral disease while other states and nations are taking more proactive messages. These messages of denial were the product of incompetence. That incompetence has its roots in a devastating divestment in public health and safety resources that is now 10 years old. That divestment lowered the quality of public health services in New Hampshire just as we needed them the most.

In 2010, New Hampshire elected a government that took aim at public health and safety resources as a response to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. After a midterm election with low voter turnout, former House Speaker Bill O’Brien and Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt (now the governor’s top policy aide), captured the Legislature and developed a strategy designed to destroy our public health infrastructure.

Along with a reactionary right-wing majority in the U.S. Congress, this group abandoned traditional conservative values that promoted public safety and cut approximately $400 million from the public health budget in New Hampshire. What followed from this abandonment was a series of failed responses to the opioid epidemic, crises in mental health care and responses to child abuse and neglect, a spike in homicides, and now, a delayed response to a pandemic that threatens us all, and the elderly population in particular.

The news on March 13 was that the governor is warning of budget shortfalls, a harbinger of budget cuts, which will further disarm our public health and safety apparatus in the face of growing crisis. This preceded a press conference in which the governor could barely pronounce “coronavirus” and maintained a state of emergency while, with his top executive branch officials looking on, he provided incredible information about the state of public health that localities like Manchester, Bedford and Concord would no longer accept as they made their own decisions to shut down schools and social gatherings.

Perhaps that is a good sign. We need a sea change in attitude in New Hampshire. We have too much evidence now of what the costs of not investing in public health and safety look like.

We are going to see even more evidence of the fruits of past practices in the weeks, months and years to come, including lost lives. The question is whether we are going to do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results, or whether we are going to accept that we have obligations to responsibly arm our public health infrastructure with the support necessary to attract leaders able to capably fight epidemics like Covid-19 because we have given them resources to do so.

The current approach is not sustainable and must be rejected if we are going to overcome the current public health and safety threats facing us and to prepare for threats to New Hampshire that may be just around the corner.

Michael S. Lewis is an attorney who lives in Concord.

Categories: Government, Health, Opinion