Too sick to work, too broke not to

State ponders whether to require businesses to give paid sick leave

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published Thursday, September 10, 2009
State lawmakers will soon take up a bill that could require businesses to offer paid sick leave to all employees.

Supporters of the proposal, such as Nikki Murphy, executive director of the N.H. Women’s Lobby and Alliance in Concord, say it will improve public health by keeping sick employees off the job.

But opponents, like David A. Juvet, senior vice president of the Concord-based N.H. Business and Industry Association, say it will place burdensome costs on small- and mid-sized businesses already struggling through the recession.

“Where does this end?” Juvet said. “You could argue that businesses should be required to provide vacation time for mental health or say they have to provide a retirement savings account.

“Many businesses look at those and try to provide those if they can and if it makes good business sense. But there’s a big difference between the business choosing that and the state mandating that.”

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, D-Concord, would require businesses with 10 or more employees to provide up to five days of paid sick time to all part- and full-time employees who have worked there for six months.

The sick time, which can also be used to stay home with sick family members or for preventive care, would be earned at a rate of 1 hour of sick time per 30 hours worked, according to Gile.

As state health officials prepare for a possible H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic, they’re urging workers to stay home if they feel sick to avoid spreading illness to co-workers or other members of the public. Continue reading

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Good grades

Officials: mental health court reduces logjam

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published September 9, 2009
In the nearly six years since the mental health court in Keene became the first to open in the state, more than 200 people who otherwise would have ended up in jail instead have entered a program designed to treat their mental illnesses.

Mental health court officials say the program is successfully helping reduce overcrowding in the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland, saving money and improving the mental health of the people it serves.

G. Gail Coburn, director of adult services for Monadnock Family Services, also credits the court with helping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness here.

Monadnock Family Services is a Keene-based mental health agency involved with the court since its inception.

“I think the fact that the community and the court system even support this kind of program speaks well of what I describe as the mental health-I.Q. of the community,” Coburn said. “It is higher than the average community because these programs are put in place and it’s sort of brought to the forefront that there are these mental health issues and, you know, the community can be part of resolving these issues.”

Other local mental health providers say that’s one of the unexpected benefits of the court, which they say has improved community awareness of mental illnesses and increased collaboration between local criminal justice officials and mental health agencies. Continue reading

Nia dance technique focuses on wellness

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The dancers begin quietly and gently, slowly warming and stretching their muscles with slight, swaying movements.

But as the background music swells to a dramatic crescendo of stringed instruments, piano and singing, the teacher and four students twirl and whirl around the room in a blur of motion.

“Find your joy,” instructor Lindsay Rodger Bartlett says over the music. “If it doesn’t feel joyful, do something else.”

It’s around noon on a Wednesday and the dancers are taking a Nia class in a bright studio at the MoCo Arts building on Elm Street in Keene.

Nia is a technique developed about two decades ago that blends martial arts, including tai chi and tae kwon do, dance and healing arts including yoga.
Continue reading

It’s not just the blues

Mom looks to help moms share postpartum troubles
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The day she went home from the hospital with her newborn daughter Adlay Rose, a weight settled heavily on Caitlin R. League.

She had already been battling physical illness and depression throughout her pregnancy and coming home made the new Keene mother feel even more overwhelmed and anxious.

“I felt the earth go out from under me pretty much,” League said. “I was just panicking about panicking, panicking about being alone with her. I almost would say it was performance anxiety.”

Fortunately, she’d already met with Amanda R. Houle during prenatal visits and knew she could turn to her for help. Houle is a behavioral health consultant for Monadnock Family Services at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene. She works with pregnant women and new mothers through a pregnancy wellness program at the hospital.
Continue reading

Pandemic memories

Current outbreak recalls, for some, the deadly Spanish flu of 1918

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published May 3, 2009
Clara C. Seamour, 99, remembers the autumn day in 1918 when her mother came to pick her up early from school.

For days, people at the Rindge farm where Seamour’s parents worked had been falling ill as a pandemic flu made its way through the town, she recalls.

“There was a lot of sickness,” said Seamour during an interview Friday at Good Shepherd Healthcare Center in Jaffrey, where she now lives. “That flu was flying around like the dickens.”

Eventually, schools and businesses closed for a few days as people tried to contain the illness, she said.

So far, the number of people infected by the most recent outbreak known as swine flu pales in comparison to the 1918 Spanish flu. Continue reading

Finally, affirmation

Federal report confirms 697,000 suffer from Gulf War illness. Swanzey woman sees a faint light at the end of the tunnel

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 17
SWANZEY — There are mornings when 48-year-old Linda L. Hunt of Swanzey can’t get out of bed without her husband’s help because of the pain and stiffness in her joints.

Some days, it takes hours for her painkillers and muscle relaxers to kick in.

Hunt, a retired Air Force veteran who was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990, is one of an estimated 697,000 U.S. veterans who suffer from Gulf War illness, according to a recent report from a committee established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For Hunt, the report released last month validated years spent in search of a diagnosis for the laundry list of symptoms she endures, including joint pain and stiffness, muscle aches and memory and concentration problems.

“I was happy to see it in black and white,” Hunt said. “It felt like validation.”

According to the report, at least one-quarter of Gulf War veterans suffer from the illness, which has been linked to pyridostigmine bromide pills given to protect troops from nerve agents and pesticides used during their deployment.

There are also ties to exposure to nerve agents, receipt of multiple vaccines and close proximity to oil well fires, but evidence to these links are inconsistent, according to the report.

Hunt, who said she was diagnosed with Gulf War illness by a doctor at the Manchester VA Medical Center in 2002, spent five years undergoing a battery of tests before the illness was confirmed.

“They tested me for rheumatoid arthritis, that came back negative,” she said. “I’ve had X-rays, bone scans and blood tests. It was a long, frustrating process and I started to feel like I was going crazy.”

A controversial diagnosis

The recent report from the congressionally-mandated Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses contradicts a federally-funded study just two years ago that denied the existence of any Gulf War-linked disease.

The 2006 study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, which was sponsored by the Veterans Administration, showed that while the incidence of illness among Gulf War veterans was higher than those from other wars, they couldn’t be linked to a single disease.

Before making an official response to the most recent study confirming the existence of Gulf War illness, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake has sent it to the Institute of Medicine for review, according to a press release from the government agency.

“I appreciate the committee’s work on this report, and I am eager to see the results of further independent study into their findings,” Peake said in the press release. “Of course, VA will continue to provide the care and benefits our Gulf War veterans have earned through their service, as we have for more than a decade.”

Part of the difficulty in pinpointing an illness has been that veterans report a wide and varying range of symptoms, including muscle and joint pain, memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, hair loss and skin rashes.

Gulf War veterans also face an increased risk for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a degenerative disease of the nervous system better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and have died from brain cancer at elevated rates, according to the most recent report.

The report found that federal Gulf War research programs have not been effective in addressing issues related to Gulf War illness and called for research funding to be increased.

“Adequate funding is required to achieve the critical objectives of improving the health of Gulf War veterans and preventing similar problems in future deployments,” the report summarized. “This is a national obligation, made especially urgent by the many years that Gulf War veterans have waited for answers and assistance.”

Hoping for a cure

Besides feeling validated by the committee’s report, Hunt says it has provided her with hope that she could some day feel better.

For now, Hunt said her symptoms are being managed by pain medications, muscle relaxers and antidepressants. She’s tried several homeopathic remedies, including acupuncture and detoxification, but has found them ineffective or too costly.

Besides living in near constant pain, Hunt said her life has been affected both professionally and personally in a myriad of ways.

In 1995, after 15 years in the Air Force, Hunt retired and moved to Alaska, where she worked as a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office until, in 1997, she was suddenly struck with mysterious pain.

“I had a walking route,” she said of her job. “Pretty soon it got to be too much for me.”

In 2002, she moved to New Hampshire and now works in real estate at Century 21 in Keene.

The job provides her flexible hours and allows her to make trips at least four times a year to the veteran’s hospital in Manchester.

“I couldn’t keep a 9 to 5 job,” Hunt said. “If I had to be at work by 9, I’d have to get up at 5 a.m. just so that I could take my meds and get my body to calm down in time to start work.”

An avid bowler and gardener before she became sick, Hunt says she has cut back on physical activities and feels angry that, for years, she felt the government was ignoring the problems she and many of her fellow veterans have faced.

“We served our country,” she said. “What was frustrating is that some of the vaccines we were given weren’t recorded in our individual shot records. So we don’t even have completely accurate records of what they gave us.”

Hunt, whose son is stationed with the Army in Italy and returned earlier this year from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan, says she also worries about whether active military members are still being exposed to toxins that may have made her ill.

“There still needs to be a lot more research,” she said. “And I think it should be a made a priority.”

Calls for mental health reform

New report paints a bleak picture of a ‘failing’ system

Published Sept. 23, 2008 in the Keene Sentinel
By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
A task force made up of community mental health care providers and state health officials says that the state needs to invest in mental health care at local levels to prevent costs from shifting to other areas of government.

“We are on the mend,” Jue said. “But it’s meant making some tough decisions and restructuring some programs to help us break even. And we couldn’t have done it without community support.”

Jue said that for the last two months, with the help of an increase in private donations and grant money, the agency has managed not to spend more than it makes.

The agency has received more than $60,000 in private donations since it went public with its financial woes in May, Jue said.

Starting Oct. 1, the agency has promised to bump its employees’ salaries back up nearly to the levels they were before the cutbacks, Jue said.

But when an audit of the agency’s finances from the 2008 fiscal year, which ended June 30, is finished later this month, Jue expects it to come in at least $550,000 over budget.

To deal with the budget shortfalls, the agency has begun restructuring programs.

It has been beefing up children’s programs, which are supported by federal and state money, and shrinking the agency’s adult outpatient counseling services by eliminating six counseling positions and shortening the length of care for people who can’t pay and aren’t considered a danger to themselves or others, Jue said.

“We’re still able to see as many people as before, but we will have to prioritize and be more measured in the care we can provide,” Jue said.

The agency has been seeking partnerships with other nonprofit organizations in the region that could provide long-term treatment options, but money is tight everywhere, Jue said.

And Jue said while he understands that the state government is tackling its own budget shortfalls, it is important to bring the problems in the mental health system to lawmakers’ attention.

“When it comes down to it, the state has to come forward and help out with this,” Jue said. “We’re still under-funded for 24-hour crisis care, we’re still under-funded for psychiatric services and there still aren’t enough residential beds to meet the need in the state.”

Several of the recommendations in the task force report, which will be presented to executive branch, legislative, judicial and local public officials, draw on proposals outlined in a 23-year-old plan to restructure the state’s mental health system that state health officials say were never implemented.

The 1985 report focused on scaling back a reliance on inpatient mental health care at state facilities like New Hampshire Hospital, and building treatment programs in communities.

But while programs were cut at the state hospital, community programs didn’t grow enough to meet the need, over-burdening the New Hampshire Hospital with nearly twice the number of admissions over the past 15 years, according to the report.

By increasing programs to help mentally ill people get and maintain affordable housing, adding 132 new inpatient beds in community residential facilities and developing teams of community-based outreach workers, fewer of the state’s mentally ill population will need to seek help at the state hospital, according to the report.

“Ultimately, the success of this new investment strategy will be measured in the improved quality of care for N.H. citizens,” said Roland P. Lamy Jr., executive director of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, a group formed by the state’s 10 local centers.

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.

Findings from an 18-month study, unveiled in a report Monday, showed that local law enforcement, hospital emergency rooms, the court system and county jails shoulder the burden of under-treated mental health conditions, according to Nicholas Toumpas, commissioner of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

“(The state’s) mental health care system is failing and the consequence of these failures is being realized across the state and its communities,” Toumpas said.

The report prepared by the task force, a collaboration among the state health department, the New Hampshire Hospital Bureau of Behavioral Health and the Community Behavioral Health Association, recommended a multi-year plan to overhaul the system that includes more community-based housing for treatment and more money for maintaining qualified staff.

Kenneth Jue, CEO of Monadnock Family Services, a community mental health center serving the Monadnock Region, echoed the findings in a recent interview with The Sentinel.

The agency is beginning to come out of a financial crisis this year that has resulted in the loss of at least 12 employees and caused staff pay and benefits to be slashed by nearly 7 percent in May, Jue said.