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State Rep. Can’t Sit in Chamber Because of Medical Device

State Rep. Can’t Sit in Chamber Because of Medical Device

  • State Rep. Ernie Bridge, R-Unity, has developed a lung problem which requires him to use an oxygen concentrator. He was at his home on April 8, 2016, in Unity, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • State Rep. Ernie Bridge, R-Unity, has developed a lung problem which requires him to use an oxygen concentrator,at right, at his home on April 8, 2016, in Unity, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2016

Unity — Although New Hampshire legislators are allowed to carry concealed weapons onto the House floor, one local representative is finding that it can be much more difficult to bring in needed medical equipment.

State Rep. Ernie Bridge, R-Unity, suffered from a small “leak” in his lung as the legislative session was set to begin in January. He’s since been issued a portable oxygen concentrator by his doctors to assist his “severely compromised” breathing whenever he leaves home, but has been told it’s not allowed to accompany him to an assigned seat in the Statehouse.

“If I can’t get to my seat to push the button (to vote), I’m not much good,” said Bridge, 80, who is no longer driving to Concord and decided not to run for re-election.

He said the House’s Sergeant-at-Arms told him the concentrator wasn’t allowed at his seat about three weeks ago, when he asked the chamber’s registered nurse about possibly getting an aisle seat.

Aisle seats are usually reserved for House committee chairs and senior leaders, not first-term legislators such as Bridge.

“I just kind of let it go” and went home, he said.

Jim Rivers, a spokesman for Republican Speaker Shawn Jasper, said Bridge’s concentrator posed a safety hazard to other House members and possibly blocked their route to emergency exits.

“Even if he had an aisle seat, the rolling piece of equipment that he had could not be left in the main aisle,” Rivers wrote in an email.

Concentrators take nitrogen out of the air and deliver an increased concentration of oxygen to those suffering from breathing problems, according to the national COPD Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for those suffering from COPD, a disease that makes it difficult to breath.

Bridge’s tank is about the size of a briefcase. It weighs about 10 pounds, and its battery makes a small humming sound.

Although the concentrator comes in a nylon carrying bag, it also can be wheeled around. Bridge prefers to use wheels because the device is “not too heavy, but heavy enough that I’d rather drag it.”

He also uses a larger model whenever he’s at home. Bridge said his medical condition requires him to be on a concentrator 24 hours a day. 

Bridge thinks that some of the hesitancy around allowing the portable device at his seat is simply an unfamiliarly with the technology. Older versions often needed to be plugged in and could be significantly louder than current models. 

Rivers wrote that although Bridge wasn’t allowed at his assigned seat with the equipment, the House has allowed some members using oxygen tanks to sit in their assigned spots, and the body also provides special seating to others.

“The Speaker makes every attempt to accommodate our members who have health issues,” Rivers wrote. “By asking for a chair in the rear of the hall, accommodations could be made to record his vote. But, as I understand it, that request was never made.”

Bridge said he didn’t discuss the seating issue with Jasper’s staff that day. He didn’t want to make a scene or cause any embarrassment. He still doesn’t, but was forced to announce the situation when a Sullivan County Delegation meeting was scheduled for April 6 in Concord.

“After having made it to Concord to attend House session, and being told that I could no longer bring my oxygen concentrator to my seat,” Bridge wrote to fellow representatives in an email, “(which made) it impossible for me to vote, I’ve not made the trip again.”

Bridge said he didn’t want to make a big announcement by sending that email. He only wanted to let people know why he wouldn’t be attending meetings, but some legislators have stepped in to help.

Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, said he heard of Bridge’s problems in the House last week and submitted a request with the House health office, so they can determine how best to accommodate Bridge.

“It isn’t something that happens the moment you ask,” Smith said, adding that the office can take weeks before deciding whether a legislator needs a seat change.

Changing to an aisle seat in the House also isn’t easy, Smith said, because another member would have to agree to switch assignments.

Until Bridge can get a more appropriate seat, voters in Unity and Newport are down a legislator. Three state representatives cover the two towns, and with Bridge not attending sessions in Concord, voters have to rely on only two legislators to cast ballots in their interest.

“If there are seats in the back, he should have been offered one of those seats,” said Rep. Skip Rollins, R-Newport.

Rollins doesn’t remember seeing any of those back seats in his visits to the Statehouse, but he knows of members who have trouble making it to their assigned seats. One woman who sits a few rows in front of him requires the help of her colleagues to walk her down to a seat.

As the Granite State and the Legislature’s population ages, accommodating senior citizens could become the norm at the Statehouse. Earlier this year, a demographic report released by Stateline and the National Conference of State Legislatures found that lawmakers average 66 years old in New Hampshire, about a full decade older than the national average.

With only about two months left in the legislative session, Bridge said it’s unlikely he’ll attend House sessions in Concord until he knows he’ll be able to vote. He said that he feels more comfortable in committee meetings, since they’re often held in the Legislative Office Building, though he missed the last House Environment and Agriculture meeting because of a doctor’s appointment.

Because of his health problems, Bridge said, he won’t run for another term in the Legislature, and is actively looking for someone who would be willing to run in his place.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.