- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - A program that helps New Hampshire National Guard members and their families won praise from a Defense Department official Monday as it transitions to new management.

The 7-year-old program helps individuals and families with suicide prevention, mental health care, employment and housing. Until recently, it was managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, the New Hampshire National Guard and Easter Seals New Hampshire, but the cooperative agreement among the three groups ends this month. The program was put out to bid under a federal law that requires giving first dibs to small businesses owned by disabled veterans, and the $1.1 million federal contract recently was awarded to Pro-Force, a company based in Alexandria, Va.

Maj. Gen. Richard Wightman, active Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, traveled to New Hampshire to learn more about the program and said it should serve as a model for other states.

“We knew it was a good program in Washington, but we didn’t know how good,” he said. “New Hampshire is probably the best state in the nation in terms of using that money (efficiently), but it’s not just the federal money, it’s the combination of the public sector and private sector money that’s part of that as well, and this one-on-one care coordination is really making a difference.”

Maj. Gen. William Reddell, adjutant general for New Hampshire, said Easter Seals still will play a role in helping veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001.

“It’s a good outcome, because it’s an expansion of services,” said U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, who joined U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in discussing the program with Wightman.

Easter Seals director Larry Gammon said while he is disappointed that his organization wasn’t allowed to bid on the contract, he expects Easter Seals will continue working with about 100 of the roughly 300 people currently in the program. He also is hopeful that grant funding will come through to allow Easter Seals to open a new treatment facility for veterans with alcohol and drug problems.

“We’re rolling, even without the contract,” he said. “We are alive and well.”

Though Gov. Maggie Hassan initially asked the Defense Department to allow Easter Seals to bid on the contract, her office has been working with both Easter Seals and Pro-Force to help ensure a smooth transition.

Bruce McGraw, chief operating officer at Pro-Force, said the company plans to hire about a dozen full-time staffers in New Hampshire. Given how well the program already works, he doesn’t plan big changes but described some smaller “tweaks,” including re-naming the program “Care Coordination Program-New Hampshire,” hiring certified financial counselors and spreading counselors around the state.

“The program has worked great, so we’re trying to embrace it and keep it alive the way it is,” he said.

Ayotte, who invited Wightman to New Hampshire, said the state has a duty to care for its veterans and active duty service members.

“We owe it to them. This is part of our responsibility,” she said. “As we look at what’s happening around the world, we would not be a free country but for our men and woman in uniform who have stepped up to serve this country.”

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