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NH Department of Corrections Sees Surging Overtime, Medical Costs

The Department of Corrections is reporting significant shortfalls in its overtime and medical budgets, prompting an appeal to the state for help. 

The two requests going before the Executive Council Wednesday are indicative of ongoing challenges at the DOC, particularly the men’s state prison in Concord. Historic staffing shortages came to a head in March when the National Guard was deployed to the facility to assist for a three-month term. 

The DOC is currently experiencing a 51 percent vacancy rate for entry-level corrections officers. Commissioner Helen Hanks said the department continues to face staffing shortages that were “severely exacerbated” by the COVID-19 pandemic, something that rings true for correctional facilities nationwide.

 “We faced an unprecedented level of retirements during the pandemic, as well as recruitment challenges,” she said. “Our dedicated staff is working significant amounts of overtime.”

In an interview last month with the New Hampshire Bulletin, Hanks also noted employees at the DOC are the lowest-paid law enforcement on state wages. Compounding that, she said, the Concord prison is a deteriorating structure with facilities as old as 1878.

Request to Reallocate $8.7 Million to Overtime

The department isn’t requesting additional funds from the state for overtime but rather the ability to transfer $8.7 million among its own accounts to cover costs through the end of the fiscal year on June 30. Paperwork shows the department is currently experiencing a total of more than $13 million in overtime deficits, and seeks to cover all of the shortfall eventually by continuously identifying surpluses in other areas.

The lion’s share of the requested reallocation would go toward overtime costs at the men’s prison in Concord and the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. 

In its request, the department detailed numerous ongoing efforts to recruit and retain staff: job fairs, speaking engagements, a partnership with Berlin High School that teaches students about entering the corrections field, marketing and rebranding strategies, social media outreach, and internal programs centered around employee wellness and peer connections.

The biennial state budget passed by the House last week allows the DOC to show employee appreciation by developing “a program for the recruitment, selection, placement, and retention of qualified applicants.” The program may include paid meals, physical awards, and gift cards of $25 or less during National Corrections Professionals Week, the budget language cites as an example.

COVID-Delayed Procedures, Nursing Vacancies 

The department’s requests in front of the Executive Council also pull back the curtain on less-publicized challenges, such as surging medical costs. 

In a memo to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, Hanks detailed a combination of nursing vacancy rates, temporary staffing that has proven to be not cost-effective, and the COVID-induced postponement of routine medical care for incarcerated individuals. 

The department is requesting $5.6 million in additional state funds to cover the medical shortfall.

Hanks cited a 27 percent vacancy rate for nursing staff at the men’s prison in Concord and a 17 percent vacancy rate department-wide. She said the DOC is not immune to the same staffing difficulties its community health care and law enforcement partners continue to experience. 

As a result, the DOC has turned to temporary staffing as a solution.

“Temporary staffing, while meeting our medical staffing needs, is not as cost-effective as being able to fill our own vacancies,” Hanks wrote to the Fiscal Committee. “Our temporary staffing cost this same period last year was $358,000. It is currently over $1.7 million.”

The department has also experienced a $384,918 increase in hospital expenses over the same time last year, largely attributed to the scheduling of “catch-up” procedures that weren’t performed during the pandemic.

Numbers provided by the DOC show a 176.44 percent increase in ambulance costs, a 168.66 percent increase in neurology costs, and a 365.35 percent increase in oncology and hematology costs.

The department entered into a new medical service contract with Wexford, Hanks noted, which is 23 percent higher than the prior contact with Centurion. 

Some of the increase is due to “greatly needed” staffing additions to the contract, such as a podiatrist, oral surgeon, psychologist, and two licensed drug and alcohol counselors. Hanks said state correctional health care contracts appear to be experiencing increases nationwide.

Source : New Hampshire Bulletin