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Hansel, Zuchowski advance to general election in Keene's mayoral contest
  • Updated

Keene’s mayoral race in Tuesday’s primary came down to a contest between two of the three candidates, as incumbent George Hansel easily won enough votes to advance to November’s general election.

Hansel took 763 votes across the city’s five wards, while Mark J. Zuchowski edged out fellow challenger Aria DiMezzo, 58 to 35. Zuchowski, a Massachusetts native who has lived in Keene for the past six years, will join Hansel on the ballot next month.

Zuchowski, 66, told The Sentinel in September that he wants to serve as mayor to give a voice to the people of Keene and also to address veterans’ issues and the spread of misinformation, particularly around the pandemic. Each of Keene’s five wards overwhelmingly picked Hansel, 35, as their top candidate with Zuchowski coming in second.

Both DiMezzo and Zuchowski have ongoing legal issues. DiMezzo was arrested in March and is facing multiple charges stemming from what federal prosecutors describe as an unlicensed scheme to sell cryptocurrency.

Meanwhile, last month, Zuchowski was named in a stalking petition filed by a city employee who alleges he repeatedly contacted her at work both in person and via email and showed up uninvited at her house and refused to leave.

Zuchowski has described the matter — which led the woman to call Keene police — as a misunderstanding. He is currently under a protective order with a hearing in the case scheduled for Wednesday in 8th Circuit Court District Division in Keene. He does not face criminal charges.

Hansel, who is seeking his second two-year term as mayor, said a top focus for him is addressing Keene’s housing needs, as well as continuing to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.

As in most recent city primaries, Tuesday’s turnout was low, with only 6 percent of Keene’s registered voters hitting the polls. A lack of participation in municipal primaries is one reason a city councilor has proposed abandoning them altogether.

Councilor Randy Filiault has requested that the city either eliminate municipal primaries or adjust them so a higher number of candidates is needed to trigger them. Currently, a primary election is required if there are more than two candidates for mayor or any of the ward councilor positions, or if there are more than 10 candidates for the five councilor at-large seats.

“When you look at the primaries now, the turnout is pathetic,” Filiault told The Sentinel last month. “I’m talking single digits.”

According to City Clerk Patty Little, the municipal primary turnout was under 10 percent in 2011, 2013 and 2017, with rates of 3, 6 and 5 percent, respectively. The turnout was 11 percent in 2015 and 12 percent in 2019.

In addition, Filiault said primaries are pricey — running the city north of $12,000 — and often eliminate only one candidate from the general election ballot.

In addition to the mayoral contest, all other races — including for City Council and various election-official positions — were on Tuesday’s primary ballot, though only one election-official race was contested. Those candidates will all move on to the general election Nov. 2., with the exception of Raven Norlander-McCarty, who was the only ward 5 selectman candidate not to secure one of three available spots on the November ballot. Those moving on in that race are Kathaleen Austin, Mark Rebillard and Sandra van de Kauter.

Along with the race for mayor, the November ballot will include contests for Ward 1 councilor, where Robert Crowell will face off against Kris Roberts, who will proceed to the general election after securing 12 write-in votes in Tuesday’s primary; and Ward 2 councilor, where incumbent Mitch Greenwald faces a challenge from newcomer Ryan Clancy.

Roberts also received 16 write-in votes to move on to the general election as an at-large council candidate, making him the ninth person on the ballot competing for one of five open seats. Other candidates include incumbents Kate Bosley, Bettina Chadbourne, Filiault and Michael Remy, as well as former Councilor Michael Giacomo, who resigned over the summer after moving out of his ward, Jodi Newell, Boston Parisi and Ian Freeman, who is facing cryptocurrency-related charges in a case connected with DiMezzo’s.

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Federal judge throws out area residents’ mask lawsuit
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As COVID-19 cases surged in New Hampshire in recent months, a federal judge affirmed local communities’ authority to require masks in public places, dismissing claims by three area residents that those rules violated their constitutional rights.

In an Aug. 10 decision, U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty said the trio — Aria DiMezzo and Ian Freeman, both of Keene, and Malaise Lindenfeld of Nelson — lacked standing to bring the case because they hadn’t shown they suffered, or were likely to suffer, specific harm due to mask mandates enacted by the city of Keene and the state.

The plaintiffs, McCafferty ruled, didn’t prove that those restrictions kept them from exercising their religious beliefs, expressing themselves in public or gathering to protest the masking measures, as they claimed in their lawsuit last year.

“Plaintiffs do not identify any concrete, specific instance in which they will be required to do, or prevented from doing, any of these things,” she wrote. “They merely state what they believe the ordinance and orders require them (and others) to do and object to compliance with those perceived requirements.”

DiMezzo, Freeman and Lindenfeld — all of whom have a history of supporting libertarian causes and candidates — sued the city and Gov. Chris Sununu in September 2020 over the local and state mask mandates, respectively, claiming the rules were overbroad and that both entities had overstepped their legal authority. The restrictions also deprived them and others, they argued to the federal court in Concord, of the freedom to choose whether to cover their face in public.

Under emergency powers Sununu invoked during the pandemic, he signed an executive order in August 2020 requiring anyone in a scheduled gathering of at least 100 people to wear a mask. Keene officials enacted an ordinance the same month that mandated face coverings in all indoor public spaces as well as outdoor spaces where business was conducted and social distancing was difficult, with establishments facing possible fines for allowing someone to enter unmasked. Both measures contained certain exemptions, including for young children.

Public health experts have said face coverings help limit the spread of the airborne respiratory virus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has caused more than 700,000 deaths nationally.

In their lawsuit, however, DiMezzo, Freeman and Lindenfeld accused Sununu of “invoking a feigned ‘public health’ crisis” to enact the statewide mandate, which the governor later expanded to include most public spaces. The three sought to challenge those additional regulations in their lawsuit, too.

The state rules expired in April and Keene’s ordinance in June amid rising vaccination rates and a large decline in COVID-19 cases, which later spiked again.

DiMezzo, Freeman and Lindenfeld said in court filings that the regulations prevented them from participating in church services, citing other federal court rulings last year that blocked measures meant to limit the virus’ spread at religious gatherings. (Unlike the mask mandates in Keene and New Hampshire, those measures put restrictions on houses of worship not imposed on other organizations — a practice the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional earlier this year.)

In her ruling, McCafferty concluded the penalties that DiMezzo, Freeman and Lindenfeld faced under the mask mandates were “no different than that faced by the general public.” She also noted that all three plaintiffs attended an August 2020 rally in Keene, which drew more than 100 people, to protest the mask requirements and that none wore masks — despite the state and local rules.

“It appears from the plaintiffs’ own complaint that the measures they challenge have had no effect on their conduct,” she wrote. “This strongly suggests they have suffered no injury in fact.”

Freeman acknowledged Monday that the mask mandates “didn’t keep me from doing anything.”

But he pushed back on McCafferty’s ruling, telling The Sentinel that just because he wasn’t penalized for flouting those rules doesn’t mean he lacks standing to challenge them. Freeman, who like DiMezzo faces federal charges in a separate case over his involvement in a local cryptocurrency exchange, said New Hampshire’s COVID-related restrictions caused Lindenfeld to close two restaurants — Audrey’s Cafe in Dublin and Piedra Fina in Marlborough — last year.

“Whether or not a cop puts handcuffs on you is not a factor in whether there’s harm done,” he said.

Freeman said the plaintiffs’ Manchester-based attorney, Robert Fojo, didn’t respond to their questions about appealing McCafferty’s ruling before the 30-day deadline to do so, making the civil case “dead in the water.” Fojo, who also represented a Nashua resident last year in a failed lawsuit against that city’s mask mandate, said he notified Freeman and the others of the judge's decision and communicated their options for appeal.

New Hampshire communities can still require people to wear face coverings, even as the state of emergency that Sununu declared last year has expired, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general told The Sentinel last month.

At least two have taken advantage of that authority: Hanover adopted new rules in August requiring people to wear face masks indoors, after its previous mandate had expired earlier, and Lebanon has since enacted a similar policy, according to reporting by The Valley News. Local officials in both communities said the measures were needed with COVID-19 cases there rising, due largely to the virus’ more contagious delta variant.

Infection rates in Cheshire County — where 63 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated — have risen since July though fell slightly in recent weeks, according to data published by the CDC.

City Councilor Randy Filiault said Tuesday that Keene officials have no plans to bring back a community-wide mask mandate. Filiault, who first proposed that policy last year, said last month that officials were in “ wait-and-see mode” on new restrictions and have been monitoring the situation closely.

“Most councilors honestly would prefer not to institute a mandatory mask mandate, and are, for now, allowing business owners to implement their own if they choose to,” he said at the time.

This article has been changed to correct information about the actions of the plaintiffs' attorney during the 30-day window to appeal the court ruling and updated with the attorney's response.

NH hospitals say Anthem’s delayed payments total hundreds of millions of dollars

Anthem Blue Cross is working to clear a backlog of claims resulting in delayed payments for some medical providers in the state that an industry group says has grown into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The delayed payments, which have drawn the attention of the N.H. Insurance Department, appear part of a nationwide trend of unpaid claims by Anthem, the country’s second-largest insurance company.

After Anthem allegedly began falling behind on payments, the N.H. Hospital Association surveyed 22 hospitals twice, in May and September. According to the survey, the hospitals report that Anthem, the state’s largest health insurer, has failed to process $300 million in claims submissions, with $181 million of that outstanding debt more than 30 days old.

Those figures, however, represent billed charges and don’t reflect the actual expected repayments previously negotiated between Anthem and the medical providers. Those figures are likely 20 to 50 percent less.

The state Insurance Department is aware of the back payments and said it is monitoring the status of Anthem’s outstanding bills, though regulators noted they believe the company is still processing payments at a rate that is on par with other insurers in the state.

“We understand there are issues with Anthem’s accounts receivable — we are concerned about it, and have been proactively working with Anthem and impacted providers to address this issue,” a department spokesperson said.

In a statement, Anthem said the delays were caused by updates in its claims processing system and due to difficulties posed by the pandemic.

“We recognize there have been some challenges as we work with care providers to update claims processing,” Stephanie DuBois, Anthem Blue Cross’s director of public relations said in a statement. “We are dedicated to those we serve and partner with, and are focused on solving these challenges.”

The survey results were obtained by NHPR, and have not previously been released publicly.

Along with the rise in outstanding bills, hospitals say they’re also frustrated with “roadblocks” faced by their staff in working to resolve denials of coverage for medical services.

According to the survey, 20 out of 22 hospitals in New Hampshire reported Anthem had incorrectly denied claims, while other hospitals complained about long wait times to resolve disputes.

“The amount of administrative time staff have to expend to conduct business with Anthem is unreasonable,” one survey respondent wrote. “There is a complete lack of accountability on Anthem’s part.”

After approaching Anthem with their concerns, in July the insurer and hospital representatives began meetings to resolve the repayment delays, though the accounts payable balances have continued to grow since then, according to the survey.

Anthem, however, said it is currently processing claims at its “targeted level” and disputes allegations made by the hospitals that it is slow to repay its providers. The insurer said 95 percent of claims in the state are processed within 14 days, with over 98 percent paid within 30 days.

“Due to challenges, these percentages dipped slightly earlier in the year, by 1 to 1.5 percent, but we are back at targeted rates for processing levels,” DuBois said.

While Anthem maintains that the delays were due to technical issues and challenges posed by the pandemic, the hospitals say the problems go beyond that.

“As one of the largest insurance companies in the country, they need to be able to process claims in a timely manner,” Steve Ahnen, president of the N.H. Hospital Association, told NHPR.

Some smaller health care providers have also faced months of delays in receiving payments, according to interviews with NHPR, with limited information coming from Anthem on when the situation may be resolved.

Anthem declined to say how many medical providers have been affected in New Hampshire.

State regulators at the Insurance Department have been monitoring the delayed payments since the spring, when they were first notified of the issues.

The agency “continues to receive regular updates to ensure all claims are paid in an appropriate and timely manner,” the Insurance Department said. “We understand that additional work needs to be done to remedy the issue and we will continue to hold Anthem accountable to fixing the problems.”

Regulators added that “Anthem has historically been one of the fastest to pay,” and that even with its current delays, its repayment rate remains on average with other insurers in New Hampshire.

According to the survey of hospitals, more than $64 million in billed charges submitted to Anthem were still not processed after more than 180 days. Between May and September, when the association completed its two surveys of members, the total amount of outstanding billed charges grew from $263 million to $300 million.

The repayment delays don’t appear to be linked to the company’s overall financial health.

Anthem’s parent company, Indianapolis-based Anthem Inc., has seen its share price nearly double to $370 per share after plummeting below $200 during the earliest days of the economic shutdown in March 2020.

Hospitals in New Hampshire, meanwhile, saw many of their revenue streams dry up in the early days of the pandemic when the cancellation of so-called elective procedures led numerous facilities to caution of dire consequences. Both the state and federal governments awarded COVID relief funds to hospitals.

In the survey results, the association wrote that the repayment issues come as its member facilities continue to struggle with staffing shortages and other issues brought on by the pandemic.

“The issues outlined above not only impact hospitals but patients — Anthem members — as well. Hospitals are spending an inordinate amount of time and effort to get payment for services rendered,” the NHHA wrote in the survey results.

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Area school districts raise sub pay in effort to combat shortages
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As school districts throughout the Monadnock Region continue to struggle to find enough substitute teachers and staff, several districts have raised pay for subs in an attempt to recruit more people.

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland districts — instituted substitute pay raises effective Sept. 13. Substitute teachers now make $100 per day, and nurse subs make $125 per day, both up from a daily rate of $85 previously. SAU 29 is also offering a $1,000 bonus to any substitute who works 50 days in the first semester and the same bonus for working another 50 days in the second semester.

Superintendent Robert Malay said that additional incentive has helped SAU 29 recruit at least 12 new applicants for substitute positions and prompted some existing subs to work more than they currently do.

“So we’ve seen more people pop up in our substitute pool since we’ve made that change,” Malay said Tuesday. “And we’ve heard from existing folks in the pool that they’re going to take on additional days because they want to get to that bonus.”

The Hinsdale School District raised substitute teacher rates from $90 to $125 per day at the beginning of the school year, human resources director Ann Diorio said. The change has helped the district get some more subs, but “not as many as I’d like to,” she said. Ideally, Diorio said, Hinsdale’s pool of substitutes would be twice its current size, though she did not have that figure available Tuesday.

In the Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — the school board recently approved raising the rate for a substitute teacher from $85 to $125 per day, along with daily raises for substitute paraprofessionals, maintenance staff and school nurses.

But Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Rathbun said it’s too early to tell whether these pay increases are having an impact on the district’s challenge to find subs.

“It didn’t even go into effect until last Monday [Sept. 27],” Rathbun said Tuesday. “We’ve had five, six school days since that’s happened. So, I don’t think we’ve seen the effect yet. ... We haven’t seen an uptick of people picking up jobs or applying to be a substitute, necessarily.”

Both Malay and Rathbun said finding a sufficient number of substitutes is a perennial challenge for school districts statewide. Recruitment has only grown more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, when industries across virtually all sectors of the economy have struggled to find enough workers, Rathbun added.

“Every position in the school district, we’re fighting harder to fill, and that includes substitutes,” he said. “Filling our open positions has definitely been more difficult during the pandemic, and substitutes are right there with all the other positions.”

Malay said substitutes are often tougher to find than full-time educators because the potential applicant pool is smaller, since most people won’t relocate to work as a sub.

“It’s a little different in that regard, so you’re pulling from existing people in your area or in your region, because people aren’t going to just up and move and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go plop down in Keene, New Hampshire, so I can be a substitute’,” he said. “... So I think it makes it difficult in that regard, where, if you’re hiring a full-time teacher, they’re going to come from different parts of the state, the region or even the country.”

Districts typically maintain a list of substitute teachers and other staff to call on when permanent employees are out, but Rathbun said the length of those lists doesn’t always indicate whether a district will have enough subs to meet its needs.

“So, if you look at a district our size, where we’re stretched out from Fitzwilliam to Gilsum, if you’ve got a sub who’s signed up who lives in Fitzwilliam, they’re probably not going to drive 45 minutes to go sub at Gilsum,” he said. “So, if you look at the size of our sub pool, it’s one thing, but then you have to look at where do these people live, and in a stretched-out district like ours, does it make sense for them to want to sub somewhere that could be a half-an-hour, 45-minute drive away?”

Hopefully, Rathbun added, the new pay rates will provide more incentive for subs in situations like this.

“We’re definitely hopeful that if we can raise those rates, that it becomes a lot more worth that drive,” he said.

In the meantime, Rathbun said the Monadnock district will keep deploying its existing strategies to recruit substitutes, such as advertising, asking retired teachers if they are interested in subbing and working with Keene State College to find qualified education students to work as subs. Substitute teachers, Rathbun added, only need a high school diploma and an interest in working with students, along with passing state and federally required background checks.

“We do our fingerprinting right here. We’ve done everything we can to make the onboarding process as easy as possible,” he said, noting that people can apply online and take care of all their application paperwork in one place, if their references check out. “... We’ve streamlined it as much as possible to make it quick and easy.”