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County commissioner censured - Dick Burchell called out for accessing medical records


LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioner Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) was censured by his two colleagues Wednesday morning for official misconduct in connection with his attempts to access protected medical records in the state Department of Health and Human Services database.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) said that he had originally been inclined to overlook the failed attempt by Burchell to gain access to the database as a case of "no harm, no foul," but said that on deeper reflection he came to view the incident as a serious matter which needed to be dealt with.
He said that on Jan. 20, Burchell had asked an administrative employee of the county to fax a copy of a form to the state Department of Health and Human Services which Burchell himself had signed authorizing access for him to the department's rate-setting database.
Burchell had signed the request as not only a Belknap County Commissioner but also a second time as an administrator with authority to authorize access and had provided his own private email address as the facility's contact email address.
The request was later denied by the Christine Ferwerda of the DHHS, who said that it needed explicit approval from the administrator of the Belknap Nursing Home. The county's HIPAA compliance officer, Patti Ricks, pointed out that the nursing home is required by law to protect the health care information of residents of the Belknap County Nursing Home to keep it from being used improperly, and that only the administrator of the nursing home has authority to grant access to the database. Ricks wrote that it was her determination that Burchell should not have access.
Taylor pointed out that Burchell had made the request for the form to be faxed to the DHHS at a meeting of the commission but had never discussed it with the other commissioners.

"A reasonable and honest person would have explained at the meeting what he proposed to do and would have asked for board authorization for such action. Mr. Burchell clearly chose a path of deception rather than one of transparency." He said that it was "conscious usurpation of board authority."
He said that Burchell knew he didn't have the authority to authorize personal access to the department's database yet still represented himself to the department through the form he filled out as having that authority.
Taylor said that Burchell's action violated two criminal code sections, both misdemeanors, for attempting to deceive a public servant and for attempting to commit the crime of unauthorized access. Taylor and County Commission Chairman David DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) voted to censure Burchell and forward information abut the violations to the Attorney General's Office "for appropriate action."
Burchell did not deny filling out the form seeking access but said that he had only done so in order to obtain information on how reimbursement rates for county homes are determined.
He explained that he had doubts over the statements made by Acting Nursing Home Administrator Bob Hemenway that the county was losing an estimated $185,420 a year in Medicaid income due to lack of adequate documentation of services provided for residents.

"I thought it was an incorrect assumption," said Burchell, who said that he had no intention of violating the privacy of any of the residents but instead wanted to determine what factors played a role in the decrease in reimbursements from $161.33 a day last year to $154.46 on July 1 of this year.
He said that he later found out from two DHHS officials that the reimbursement rates were determined by the percentage of residents of the home who are on Medicaid on two different census days during the year.
But Taylor noted that the information which Burchell says he wanted was readily available to him. "Neither Mr. Burchell nor any other commissioner has ever been denied requested information needed for appropriate oversight of county business or functions. What was denied in this instance was unlimited access to the unlimited access to the data system of the Department of Health and Human Services, which included highly protected individual nursing home resident health records."
He pointed out that HIPAA medical records violations penalties range from $100 to $50,000 per violation.
It was the second time in less than a year that Burchell has been censured by his fellow commissioners.
Burchell, who was elected as chairman of the commission in January of 2015, was ousted as chairman in early March of that year and replaced by DeVoy at a March 2 meeting during which Burchell attempted to prevent his ouster by continually rapping the gavel and declaring that the other commissioners were out of order.
At a June 4 meeting last year, commissioners Taylor and DeVoy censured Burchell for leaking information from a nonpublic meeting held while Burchell was still chairman to former Belknap County Nursing Home Administrator Matthew Logue.


The tables turn - Workers now have upper hand as employers struggle to find qualified employees (751)


LACONIA — As the unemployment rate in New Hampshire has steadily shrunk to 2.6 percent, the next to lowest in the country by just one-tenth of 1 percent, the balance of power in the labor has shifted from employers seeking qualified employees to employees seeking greater opportunities.

Christine St. Cyr of Central New Hampshire Employment Services, Inc., which has been matching people to jobs for 36 years, said that, with the tight labor market, "Qualified candidates are working. They may be underemployed, but they are working." She stressed that with memories of the recession fresh in their minds, working people require attractive incentives to relinquish the security of a steady job for a new position.

On the other hand, St. Cyr said that employers, buffeted by the years of recession and uncertainty, grew accustomed to what she called "a flexible workforce," whose numbers, hours and wages could be adjusted to match the fluctuating volume of of their business. In particular, she said that companies relied on temporary and contract workers, whose compensation is paid by the employment agencies that place them, rather than directly hire people.

"Companies have openings and there are qualified candidates," said St. Cyr, "but, employers need to step up and make a commitment to the employee." She added that apart from a committing to directly hire their employees, employers must be willing to pay competitive wages and offer attractive benefits.

Gary Adams, vice president of the agency, suggested that employers change their approach to interviewing candidates to succeed in an an increasingly competitive labor market.

"Qualified candidates are getting multiple offers," he said. "Interviewers should explain what the company can do for the candidate, not just what the candidates can do for the company." As an example, he said that one candidate chose one company over another because one interviewer outlined the opportunities for further education and professional advancement, while the other dwelt on the tasks and responsibilities of the position.

St. Cyr said that with offices in both Laconia and Concord, the firm serves clients across the entire state, with its strong suit in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, she noted that the firm seeks candidates throughout the Northeast, adding that the more competitive employers become, the wider the field of prospects they can draw upon is.

""The labor market has turned around," Adams said. "It's an employee's market."

Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research of Laconia, a consulting firm, expected the tight labor market to linger. Noting that the economy has recovered from recession and has added 40,000 jobs since 2010, he questioned whether this pace can be sustained without more robust growth of the workforce.

The New Hampshire Department of Employment Security this month reported that in 2015 the labor force participation rate, which measures the share of residents aged 16 and older either working or seeking work, was 68.4 percent. Although among the 10 highest of the 50 states, the rate represents a decline from 71.4 in 2005 and 70.3 percent in 2010.

The decline reflects the slowing of population growth and the aging of the workforce. Since 2010, the population has risen just 1.1 percent, or by less than 15,000. While those between 25 and 64 represent the largest share of the working-age group, those between 16 and 24 and those 65 and older may also be counted in the workforce. Between 2005 and 2015, the youngest group, those 16 to 24, increased just 1.3 percent while the majority of working-age residents between 25 and 64 decreased by 1.9 percent and the share of those 65 and older rose 3.9 percent.

While the labor force participation rate of 25- to 64-year-olds has remained consistent at above 80 percent for all but those 55 and older during the past decade, it has risen among those 65 and over, climbing from about 26 percent to 32 percent – from a quarter to a third. More people are working past the traditional retirement age as fewer are covered by defined benefit pension plans and more find their savings eroded by the recession.

"We've added 40,000 jobs on top of a stable labor force," Thibeault said. He said that the shortage of labor has been reflected in upward pressure on wages, particularly in those professional and technical sectors that have generated the most job growth, but also in manufacturing where average hourly wages have climbed from below $18 to over $20 since 2012.

Thibeault foresaw two prospects. On the one hand, demand for labor will draw migrants from other states, which would increase the population, expand the workforce and support job growth. On the other hand, if the population continues to grow slowly and age rapidly, the expansion of employment cannot be sustained.

"The big difference is population growth," he said.

Drug Task Force and police arrest one for drug sales


LACONIA — City Police and the New Hampshire Drug Task Force arrested a local man Wednesday and charged him with four counts of sales of drugs.

At his video arraignment in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division, Henry Allen, 23, of 270 Dockham Shore Road in Gilford entered no plea to the four felonies – one sale each of cocaine and heroin to a confidential informer on May 3 on Hounsell Avenue and one count each of sales of cocaine and a substance consistent with heroin on April 23 on Mentor Avenue, which is off White Oaks Road.

The affidavits were sealed from the public and partially sealed from Allen's attorney, Wade Harwood, prompting a spirited legal argument about the partial seal and one of the alleged sales of heroin.

After prosecutor Jim Sawyer changed one of the charges to say a substance was purported to be heroin or fentanyl, Harwood argued that based on the limited information he had and that the preliminary test performed by police was "inconclusive" as to what the substance was, he said the case should be dismissed.

He said just because the packaging was "consistent" with that of heroin, it doesn't mean it was. Harwood also said that sealing the affidavits from his client and him mean he hasn't enough information to mount any kind of defense.

Judge Carroll agreed in part, saying he would allow the April 23 heroin sales charge to stand but would not consider it for setting bail. As to sealing the affidavits, Carroll determined the defense had enough information to proceed and allowed the seal to stay in place for fear Allen could identify the informant.

Sawyer wanted to continue the $10,000 cash bail set Tuesday night by the Drug Task Force when Allen was first arrested. Harwood said bail should be set at the $5,000 range and also allow for some kind of corporate surety.

Carroll set bail at $6,000 cash only and ordered a source of funds hearing. Both sides agreed that if bail was posted by one of Allen's parents from an account with a balance in it, there would be no need for a source of funds hearing.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Allen was still being held at the Belknap County House of Corrections.