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Fernald being used as political football

The Fernald Developmental Center may be almost closed, but it’s now apparently being used as a political football by the administration and the human service providers who are seeking to close at least three additional state facilities for persons in Massachusetts with intellectual disabilities.

In the past month, both the providers and the administration have cited an allegedly high current operating cost for Fernald as a reason to oppose a cost study prior to closing the Monson, Templeton, and Glavin centers.  Nevermind that Fernald is not even included in a proposed state budget amendment calling for the cost study.  

Moreover, while we haven’t yet seen the Fernald budget numbers the providers and the administration are citing, we understand the reportedly high cost is due to a decision by the administration to maintain an unusually high number of staff at the facility for its 19 remaining residents.   The reason for the high staffing level isn’t clear.  The guardians of those remaining residents have filed administrative appeals of Fernald’s closure.

During the ongoing budget debate in the Legislature, the Department of Developmental Services  and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers have been telling legislators that it is costing as much as $917,000 per resident per year to operate Fernald.   As the linked State House News story shows, ADDP President Gary Blumenthal last month cited that Fernald cost figure, which was disclosed by DDS,  in order to discredit a House budget amendment requiring an independent cost study prior to closing Monson, Templeton, and Glavin.

The logic of the administration and the provders appears to go something like this:  “Because we’re spending an unusually high amount this year to keep the Fernald Center open for the remaining residents,  we shouldn’t even waste time studying the cost of closing or maintaining  three other facilities where the costs actually happen to be considerably lower.   The Fernald cost shows we must close all four of these facilities as fast as possible.”

That this tactic has had an impact in the Legislature became clear when a small group of COFAR members met on Wednesday of last week with a staff member of Senator Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to push for the cost study amendment.   The staffer, without any prompting, mentioned she had heard Fernald was costing $18 million this year to operate.

That afternoon, in a conference call, I asked DDS Commissioner Elin Howe about the reported $18 million cost.  Howe said the cost was closer to $15.6 million, which would translate to a still sky-high figure of $821,000 per person to keep Fernald running this year.  When I asked what the money was being spent on, Howe said the high cost was due to the fact that 95 staff remain at Fernald — a staff-to-resident ratio of 5 to 1.

I was so taken aback by what Howe had just said that I didn’t think to ask her why the administration is maintaining such a high staffing ratio at Fernald.  That ratio appears to be the reverse of the 1 to 3.2 staff-to-resident ratio required under federal regulations for Intermediate Care Facilities.   The next day, at DDS’s request, I submitted a written question to Howe about the situation.  I haven’t yet gotten a response.

Howe, by the way, said that if I wanted to get the same Fernald budget numbers that Blumenthal was citing to the State House News Service and which DDS has apparently provided to legislators, I would have to file a freedom of information request.  I did so the next day.

I then heard that day from Senator Brewer’s office that the high staffing level at Fernald is reportedly due to a court order that has prevented DDS from moving the remaining 19 residents there into one building on the campus.  But we’ve heard from other sources that there may not actually have been any such court order.

Whatever the reason for Fernald’s current operating cost, to introduce Fernald into a debate over whether to even study the cost of operating the Monson, Glavin, and Templeton centers is disingenuous and misleading.  Luckily, Senator Brewer now appears to understand that.  “We know it’s not accurate (to link the alleged Fernald cost to the other three facilities),” the staff member said.

  1. Ed
    May 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Every time I read a report like this, I’m stunned by the reluctance, inability, or simple refusal of DDS leadership, the governor, and legislators to compare apples with apples. And there “may” or “may not” be a court order that affects Fernald staffing ratios? And COFAR must file a Freedom of Information request for information that has already been released to the ADDP and, apparently, to legislators? Amazing. Just amazing. This kind of transparency requires cataract surgery.


  2. Sue S
    May 23, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Just to clarify a point, guardians have filed appeals of involuntary transfers of their wards from the Fernald center–not its closure. State regulations require that a transfer must results in “improved” services, supports and quality of life. Additionally as Ricci Class members they are entitled to “equal or better”. The guardian’s contend that the regulatory requirement of “improved” or federally mandated right of “equal or better” has been demonstrated by the department.

    Why is no one asking why the department failed to the job they are paid to do?


    • May 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Sue, I understand your point, but in this case, it would seem that an appeal of an involuntary transfer and an appeal of Fernald’s closure largely comes down to the same thing. As I understand it, the guardians are seeking a decision that would allow them to remain at Fernald. So, if they are appealing a transfer, they are also, in effect, appealing the closure, no?


      • Sue S
        May 23, 2011 at 11:07 pm

        Not necessarily. There is a lot more to it than just opposing Fernalds closure. Like protecting the rights and lives of those who can not protect themselves, the people of Fernald and all the other residents of the other centers who will soon be faced with the same involuntary transfers.
        Plain and simple, the process is inadequate and flawed for a variety of reasons; the planning, if you want to call it that, is totally inadequate; the mandated placement (its a mandate not a choice)is inferior.
        The department is in the mode of meeting a deadline imposed by a bureaucrat. To that end, the rights and best interests of the disabled (which, correct me if I’m wrong, is the only reason these people have jobs)are secondary. Had the department done what the law requires (from the code of federal regulations right down to it own departmental regulations), its job, providing individualized planning and placement to meet the needs of these extremely fragile people and providing physical placements which were at the very least equal perhaps the story would be different.
        The entire process was orchestrated as if moving property, like a pile of old furniture, not elderly, mentally retarded human beings with numerous medical, physical and psychological issues.
        If Fernald remains open because the department failed to do what the law requires, so be it.


      • David Kassel
        May 24, 2011 at 12:43 am

        You’re right. My thought was the guardians are appealing the Fernald closure because of all the reasons you cite: the lack of adequate individualized planning involved in closing Fernald, the failure to provide equal or better care elsewhere, and the failure to follow regulations.

        This situation has been brought about, as Judge Tauro said, by a “global” closure policy that disregards each resident’s individual emotional, psychological, and medical needs. At the same time, I can see it’s more accurate to say the families are appealing the involuntary transfer decisions.


  3. Sue S
    May 23, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Correction- The regulatory requirement HAVE NOT been demonstrated by the department.


  4. stephen sheehy
    May 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I represent the remaining Fernald residents. On May 6, 2011, Lawrence Tummino, Deputy Commissioner of DDS, submitted an affidavit in connection with a Middlesex Superior Court appeal of a transfer decision. The affidavit stated that the cost of keeping Fernald open is approximately $9.8 million per year. Of that amount, approximately $4 million is for staff and $3.4 million is for energy costs. The total does not include some administrative services not paid from funds appropriated to DDS.

    Stephen M. Sheehy

    As Sue S. pointed out, we are appealing what we allege is the failure of DDS to comply with the law’s requirement that any involuntary transfer result in “improved services, supports and quality of life” for the resident.


    • May 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Interesting. That cost figure from Larry Tummino of $9.8 million for Fernald is considerably lower than the $15.6 to $16 million that DDS and the providers are now publicly citing (see today’s Boston Herald story). Somehow the cost at Fernald is more than 60 percent higher in DDS’s public pronouncements versus what it’s saying in court . To date, by the way, we have yet to see the administration’s latest cost figures, which they apparently provided ADDP last month. We were told we needed to file a Public Records request to receive them.


    • May 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm

      Attorney Sheehy, I meant to ask whether you can clarify whether a court order has been issued that prevents the remaining residents at Fernald from being consolidated into one building. We’ve heard that’s the reason for the allegeldy high staffing level at Fernald.


      • stephen sheehy
        May 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm

        I’m not aware of any court order preventing consolidation into one building. In fact, many guardians would welcome the opportunity to discuss consolidation and other issues with DDS.

        As far as the discrepancies among costs figures, the Herald article implies that $16 million was spent last year. Last year there were many more residents than there are now. The suggestion that the $16 million applies to the existing residents is misleading. Even if Mr. Tummino’s numbers are accurate, they relate to the current level of expenditures, not those from the past.

        Finally, staff numbers are suspect because DDS is in the middle of laying off a large number of employees, and it isn’t clear whether the 95 staff referenced in the Herald is the number before or after the layoffs are implemented.


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