CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A program that helps New Hampshire National Guard members and their families is caught in a disagreement over whether aiding one group of veterans could end up hurting another.
Created in 2007, the Deployment Cycle Support Care Coordination Program has been widely praised for helping nearly 3,000 individuals with suicide prevention, mental health care, employment and housing. Since the start, it has been managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, the New Hampshire National Guard and Easter Seals New Hampshire, but that could change soon.
The cooperative agreement among the three groups ends in September, and the program is being put out to bid under a federal law that requires giving first dibs to small businesses owned by disabled veterans. If no bid meets that criteria, any small business will be allowed to bid on the contract. Easter Seals, considered a large business, won't get a crack at it unless the first two rounds don't result in a winning bid.
All sides have known since last September that the funding process would be changing, but Larry Gammon, director of Easter Seals New Hampshire, said his organization didn't find out until June, when the request for bids went out, that it wasn't eligible. He notified Gov. Maggie Hassan, who wrote to Defense Department officials last week asking them to reverse their "baffling bureaucratic decision" and extend the agreement.
"At a time when the delivery of vital services to our veterans and service members is in such disarray, we should take every effort to ensure continuity of care," she wrote.
Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, public affairs officer for the New Hampshire National Guard, said while continuity of care is a concern, other companies could provide the same services. And he disputes the notion that Easter Seals was left in the dark, saying that it was clear as early as last September that Easter Seals wouldn't be able to bid in the first round and that Easter Seals representatives contacted the Guard with concerns in March as the contracting process began.
"No one involved should be surprised," he said. "This perception that they're being excluded or punished somehow is not the case. It's that we've been advised that we have to follow federal statutes."
Gammon acknowledged that Easter Seals, relying on its previous experience with federal contracts, may have been a bit naive in assuming it was eligible to bid on this one. He's hoping other bidders fall short.
"I cannot imagine anybody else can do the same thing for the same kind of money. Easter Seals puts a lot of its own money and resources into this," he said. "I just have my fingers crossed that nothing else is going to measure up."
While officials disagree about how and when the details of the new process emerged, there's no disagreement among the partners about the quality of Easter Seals' work.
"As far as their track record and the service they provide, it's been very good," Heilshorn said. "In fact, our program manager said Easter Seals is the most flexible, efficient and effective contractor we work with when it comes to providing the services we need."
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, who have been strong advocates for the program, echoed that sentiment without taking a position on whether the cooperative agreement should be extended.
"While it's the NHNG's decision whether to extend the cooperative agreement, Easter Seals and its partners in New Hampshire have done exceptional work in implementing DCSP for the past several years," they said in a joint statement.
Hassan's spokesman said the governor appreciates the law's goal of helping veteran-owned businesses and small businesses but thinks an exception is warranted.
"With their leadership abilities and unique skill sets, veterans make significant contributions to our civilian workforce and economy when they return home, but broad, rigid bureaucratic policies can sometimes lead to ridiculous results," William Hinkle said. "Gov. Hassan believes this is one of those cases."
The program gets about $1 million in federal funding and a private organization, Veterans Counts, raises another $1 million. Gammon said if Easter Seals doesn't get the contract, it will try to continue in some fashion.
"We're very committed to veterans and the population we're serving," he said. "We won't give up."