Executive Councilors Weigh in on Nominee to Lead State Health Department

Dec 31, 2015

After eight years leading the agency, Nick Toumpas will step down from his role as DHHS commissioner at the beginning of 2016.
Credit NHPR

Now that Gov. Hassan nominated Jeffrey Meyers to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the final word on Meyers’s future with DHHS rests with the Executive Council. And given the weight of the job — DHHS is the state’s largest agency, in size and its share of the budget, and arguably the most complex — councilors are expecting a rigorous selection process.

Meyers has served for the past several years as director of intergovernmental affairs for DHHS. Before that, he handled intergovernmental affairs for the Granite Healthcare Network. He also served as chief legal counsel to Gov. John Lynch and legal counsel for the New Hampshire State Senate.

Meyers, for his part, said he wanted to wait until his public hearing to discuss his past experience and qualifications, "out of respect for the formal process that will follow the Governor's nomination on Monday." Still, he said he's pleased to have the governor's support.

"I am very honored by the Governor's decision to nominate me for the commissioner's position at the Department of Health and Human Services," Meyers wrote in an email. "I deeply respect the role of the Executive Council in considering the nomination, and I look forward to appearing before the Council to discuss with them my qualifications for this position."

All five councilors — three Republicans and two Democrats — had good things to say about Meyers this week. Still, Councilor Chris Sununu said he’s expecting the confirmation process to entail “one of the most vigorous public hearings ever had.”

“I don’t think this council will be leaving any stone unturned,” said Sununu, a third-term Republican on the council who’s also running for governor in 2016.

The council will convene for a special meeting Monday to consider whether to have Meyers serve as interim commissioner when Nick Toumpas, who’s wrapping up an eight-year tenure in the role, steps down Jan. 8.

If approved, Meyers would serve as temporary commissioner until the beginning of February. But in the meantime, the council would hold an additional public selection process to determine whether to officially appoint Meyers beyond that first month.

Sununu expects a number of high-profile issues to surface during Meyers’s confirmation: the state’s Medicaid expansion, the rollout of Medicaid managed care, the agency’s approach to mental health and substance abuse, issues around Division of Children, Youth and Families, and more.

Councilor David Wheeler, a Republican from Milford, said he’s interested to question Meyers on the state’s Medicaid expansion and managed care. Specifically, Wheeler said he’s concerned about the state’s plans to eventually bring developmentally disabled individuals into the managed care program.

“I’m not a big fan of managed care,” Wheeler said. “Some of the other members of the council don’t seem to mind managed care. I’m interested in how he’s going handle the developmentally disabled with the end of managed care.”

Sununu and Wheeler both worked with Meyers when he was chief legal counsel to former Gov. John Lynch. Sununu called him a “great guy with a lot of background and experience.”

“I like him personally,” Wheeler said, “but I want to see how he’s going to run the department.”

That emphasis on management was shared by Democratic Councilor Colin Van Ostern, who's also running for governor in 2016. The second-term councilor praised Meyers as someone with “deep firsthand experience” within DHHS, the Legislature and the governor’s office.

When it comes to evaluating him for the commissioner position, Van Ostern said he’ll be interested in hearing more on Meyers’s approach to expanding “quality healthcare” access as well as his approach as a manager.

“There are thousands of state employees who report up to the commissioner,” Van Ostern said. “It’s important to empower them.”

Councilor Joseph Kenney, a Republican who’s served on the council since 2014, called Meyers “a solid nominee in the short term” but said he wanted to hold off until the public hearings before weighing in on policy questions. But, Kenney added, he’ll want to hear more on Meyers’s nomination from people within New Hampshire’s health care community.

Councilor Chris Pappas, a Democrat in his second term on the council, praised Meyers as a “capable leader in the department” and said he looks forward to the confirmation process.

“This is the toughest job in state government,” Pappas wrote in an email, “and we need a compassionate commissioner who can work in a complex environment and efficiently deliver services to the people of New Hampshire.”