HHS secretary’s New Hampshire visit lets Democrats focus on abortion, mental health

Planned Parenthood and community health center on Becerra agenda

A top target of the GOP, Democratic New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas discussed mental health programs with a member of President Joe Biden's cabinet at a roundtable in his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A top target of the GOP, Democratic New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas discussed mental health programs with a member of President Joe Biden's cabinet at a roundtable in his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 4, 2022 at 6:43pm

MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Democrats facing tough reelection battles in November got to tout issues such as mental health care and abortion rights that they think will resonate with supporters when Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra joined them for a series of events Friday.

Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas and Becerra participated in a roundtable about behavioral health at Amoskeag Health, a community health center here. President Joe Biden had highlighted the issue in his State of the Union speech this week, and lawmakers hope to pass legislation to expand funding and care this year. 

Pappas, Becerra and other federal and local officials heard about the center’s work to provide primary care, as well as specialty care, behavioral health and patient education, including helping new mothers who are postpartum and children affected by domestic violence. 

Pappas, a top target of the GOP who won his current term by 5 percentage points in 2020, said mental health is a bipartisan issue and pointed to efforts on Capitol Hill to take up a package this year that would extend programs due to expire and address ongoing crises such as the opioid epidemic. 

Pappas said a permanent expansion of telehealth coverage authorized through the COVID-19 public health emergency would be important to enact. Having Becerra visit Manchester was “critically important,” he said, and offered a chance to show how people working in mental health care in the state “always find ways to do more with less.”

“Whenever there’s an opportunity to have a Cabinet secretary here in New Hampshire, it’s an important opportunity,” Pappas said in an interview. “People here really like being heard from. I try to bring their voices wherever I can to Washington, but sometimes it’s more efficient to bring Washington to New Hampshire.”

Pappas appeared with Biden and other members of the state’s congressional delegation last year to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law and said he’d appear with the president again if given the opportunity. 

A University of New Hampshire poll from January showed that Biden’s approval rating in the Granite State fell to 39 percent, largely because of a drop in approval among Democrats. Pappas said voters were feeling anxiety coming out of “tough winter months” when the coronavirus pandemic flared up again.

“Our lives have continued to be disrupted by the pandemic, and we know there are economic headwinds that our families and small businesses are facing right now,” Pappas said.

He said the poll results should be seen as “a call for more action to address some of these challenges, and I think the way we do that is by working together and listening to each other.”

The state also has a high-profile Senate race this year. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s campaign announced Friday morning that it had reserved $13 million for television and radio advertising this fall ahead of the November election. 

“Our campaign’s greatest strength is Senator Hassan — who has built a strong record in the Senate as an independent leader who takes on corporate special interests — and wins,” the campaign said in a Friday memo. 

The campaign noted that the state’s late primary, scheduled for Sept. 13, will give the eventual GOP nominee little time to transition to the general election. Gov. Chris Sununu disappointed Washington Republicans when he said he would not seek the nomination. Three candidates are running: state Senate President Chuck Morse; former Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith; and retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who lost to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in 2020.

Before the behavioral health event, Pappas, Hassan and Shaheen joined Becerra at a Planned Parenthood location in Manchester for a closed-to-press visit to discuss health care for the poor and family planning. Democrats in the state have criticized the Republicans vying to challenge Hassan for being against abortion rights, which could get intense attention when the Supreme Court rules on a case that could overturn or modify the Roe v. Wade precedent.

Like the later roundtable Pappas did with Becerra, the event was an official government visit by the secretary, not a campaign event. But Hassan emphasized her party’s split with the GOP on the issue in a statement.

“Family planning centers, including Planned Parenthood, are a major source of vital preventive and reproductive health care, and we must ensure that they have the resources they need to continue their important work,” Hassan said. “As partisan politicians in New Hampshire and across the country seek to undermine women’s access to health care, I will continue working with the delegation and advocates across our state to protect women’s reproductive freedom.”