Lori Shibinette, who helped lead state’s COVID response, to resign as DHHS commissioner

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Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, here with Gov. Chris Sununu at a May Executive Council meeting, announced she will leave her job in December. Photo/Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin

CONCORD, NH – Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette will be stepping down in December, with one year remaining of her four-year term. Her tenure as commissioner was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, workforce shortages, a mental health crisis, and vaccine politics.

In a written statement provided by the department, Shibinette, who is on vacation this week, said she will take a short break from work to focus on herself and her family.

“It has been an honor to serve the citizens of New Hampshire through our work at the Department of Health and Human Services. COVID-19 has been a challenging time for our state, our country, and for health care,” she said. “During this time, it has been a privilege serving as your commissioner. The last three years have been incredibly challenging yet equally rewarding.”

Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement wishing Shibinette well and calling her a great friend. “I cannot thank her enough for her service to New Hampshire,” he said.

While Shibinette is most recognized for her department’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, her efforts to expand access to mental health care have also drawn attention. She came to the job with experience as a nurse, former chief executive officer of New Hampshire Hospital, and a person caring for someone with mental illness.

“I am my person’s person,” she said during opening remarks at NAMI NH’s annual conference in April. “As a family member and primary caregiver for someone with mental illness, I hope that I am enough. Through the years, I’ve heard that hope from families and caregivers countless times. We want to be enough until the system catches up or until the gaps in our system close. It’s a lot of pressure, hoping to be enough.”

Shibinette had been with Health and Human Services since 2016 when Sununu appointed her commissioner in January 2020. COVID-19 hit three months later, sending the state into lockdown and putting Shibinette in charge of an unprecedented health crisis that posed medical and political challenges.

During one particularly tense exchange with lawmakers in September, Shibinette saw the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee table $27 million in federal pandemic aid for vaccination outreach over misinformation about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican then serving as committee chairman, led the effort. Contrary to scientific evidence, Weyler said the majority of COVID-19 hospital patients were vaccinated.

“That is incorrect, and that’s misinformation,” Shibinette told Weyler. “And that is the problem that we are having increasing our vaccination rate: spreading misinformation about the COVID vaccine.” (A month later, Weyler provided committee members an outlandish report claiming the vaccine contained octopus-like creatures; under pressure, he then resigned from the committee.)

In the pandemic’s early days, Shibinette and the department worked to quickly stand up testing sites and later vaccination clinics throughout the state. They held weekly online calls with hospitals, health care providers, school leaders, and child care providers, answering questions and deciphering the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The department launched a COVID-19 dashboard and posted daily updates on hospitalizations, deaths, and new cases – and faced unfounded accusations of inflating hospitalization numbers by COVID-19 deniers.

While prior commissioners worked largely outside the public spotlight, Shibinette appeared alongside Sununu for live weekly televised COVID-19 updates, tracking grim spikes in long-term care deaths and outbreaks.

Opponents of vaccine mandates – and in some cases the vaccine itself – fought Shibinette’s requests to use federal pandemic money to increase vaccination rates. After the Fiscal Committee tabled vaccination spending, protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting scheduled to consider Shibinette’s request. When the council reconvened in October, state police removed a number of protesters from the meeting and charged them with disorderly conduct. As in the Fiscal Committee, the council voted to table the contracts along party lines.

While both bodies later approved the spending, Shibinette said the delay slowed the department’s vaccination efforts and put the public’s health at risk. In her statement Tuesday, Shibinette noted she did not lead the COVID-19 response alone.

“It was humbling to be part of a team during COVID-19 that epitomizes public service,” she said. “I share all of my successes with my colleagues throughout (Health and Human Services), who often prioritize their work over everything else. I also want to acknowledge the team of people who came together at the Emergency Operations Center to manage the state’s COVID-19 response for the better part of two years. I have learned so much from all of you.”

Health care organizations responded to news of Shibinette’s plans to leave in December.

“Bi-State Primary Care Association and New Hampshire’s community health centers are grateful for Commissioner Shibinette’s steadfast leadership during what is most likely the biggest public health emergency of our lifetimes,” said Kristine E. Stoddard, senior director of New Hampshire public policy. “Commissioner Shibinette’s clinical experience and commitment to public health proved invaluable during her tenure.”

Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, noted Shibinette’s willingness to work with the state’s hospitals managing the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. Brendan Williams, president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents skilled-nursing, assisted-living, and retirement communities, acknowledged the particular challenges of Shibinette’s tenure.

“Our long-term care system would not have made it this far into the pandemic without her support, and we have some months left under her leadership to shore up a system in crisis,” he said.

The other health crisis

In May 2021, Shibinette was in the spotlight again when the state Supreme Court ruled against the department and found it was violating due process rights by holding people seeking help for mental health treatment in emergency rooms without a timely hearing to challenge the detention. Sununu looked to Shibinette to resolve the problem.

There was no easy fix, with demand for crisis mental health treatment grossly outpacing services and inpatient beds. This led to dozens of children and adults languishing for days, even weeks in emergency rooms while awaiting a bed.

Under her watch, the department used millions in federal pandemic assistance to purchase Hampstead Hospital so the state could expand care for children and offer hospitals financial incentives to accept more adult patients in need of care. She also directed pandemic aid to community mental health centers, asking them to expand transitional housing for people ready to leave the hospital but not yet able to live alone.

In January, hoping to divert people from emergency rooms to more appropriate care, the department launched the state’s first statewide mobile crisis response teams and a 24/7 call-in center. As of April, the most recent data available, the center had received nearly 8,600 phone calls, text messages, or chat messages and deployed a mobile response team 2,067 times. Nearly 40 percent of those calls were for children.

Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI NH, considers Shibinette an ally; twice, she has asked her to give opening remarks at the organization’s annual conference.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable some of the changes that have been brought despite her being the COVID commissioner,” she said Tuesday. “I would say we’ve seen a real commitment to moving the 10-year mental health plan forward even as she was having to lead us as a state through this unprecedented crisis of the pandemic.”

In her remarks at this year’s annual conference, Shibinette spoke of the power of hope, saying hers was to see every person who needs mental health care to find it in their community and never “spend a single night in an emergency room.”

Shibinette also recalled the hope of a patient who sent her a message shortly after she was appointed chief executive officer of the state hospital. The woman had been a patient for 15 years.

“I know you just got here and you’re busy,” Shibinette said, summarizing the message. “It is my greatest wish to someday live somewhere other than here. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but just not here.” It took almost three years, Shibinettte said, but she was able to help the woman realize that wish.

“It is still today one of my proudest accomplishments of the things that I have done at New Hampshire Hospital and probably my career as a nurse,” she told the NAMI NH audience. “What’s remarkable is that she took action on her hope.”


 

About this Author

Annmarie Timmons

Senior ReporterNH Bulletin

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.