A $22.5 million request for vaccine rollout and outreach isn’t the only agenda item raising questions ahead of Friday’s Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee meeting. The Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery is asking for $17 million in federal pandemic money for a new student debt relief program but has given the committee no details about who will be eligible, what industries will be prioritized, or what expenses will be eligible.
Committee member Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, intends to ask that the request from GOFERR be tabled until the office can provide more specifics.
“How is the amount of money arrived at?” Rosenwald said Thursday. “Why would only a portion of it go to people who really need it the most? Why is that amount not 100 percent of the money? What are the work requirements? These are the questions I need answers to.”
GOFERR spokesman Alexander Fries said he anticipated those questions would be answered at the meeting, in a conversation with committee members.
The proposed program is separate from the state’s student loan repayment program for dentists, primary care providers, and mental health and substance abuse counselors, which has struggled to get increased funding from the Legislature in recent years.
According to his request to the fiscal committee, GOFERR Executive Director Taylor Caswell said the $17 million would help address workforce issues exacerbated by the pandemic. “By focusing on reducing the principal balance of student debt tied to a commitment to New Hampshire’s employment, the state will have an innovative and powerful workforce recruitment program,” Caswell wrote. “To ensure that this program is helping those that need it the most, a portion of the fund will be targeted toward those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Health care leaders would like to see at least some of that money directed their way to address what they’ve described as a critical shortage of health care workers across all settings.
Kristine Stoddard, director of New Hampshire public policy at the Bi-State Primary Primary Care Association, said upfront financial assistance — as opposed to student loan repayment — would be especially helpful in recruiting entry-level health care workers like LNAs and medical assistants, who are equally critical to responding to the pandemic.
“We know they have different needs than dentists, doctors, and ARPNs,” she said. Assistance with housing, transportation, and fees for courses could be the difference between pursuing a career and entering another field.
Roland Lamy of the N.H. Community Behavioral Health Association said the association’s 10 mental health centers are down nearly 300 clinical workers, some of them needed to meet the state’s request that centers expand services with mobile crisis response teams and additional transitional housing. Providing assistance with training and schooling costs is the centers’ most successful recruiting tool, Lamy said.
“I’m not aware if the GOFERR committee has information on our specific needs or considered the mental health workforce issues specifically in this request,” he said. “We are trying to put that together now so we would have a more focused proposal.”