Home > Uncategorized > The state’s attorney general needs to do more than follow and grab COVID media headlines

The state’s attorney general needs to do more than follow and grab COVID media headlines

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey made national headlines and newscasts with her announcement last week of criminal charges against two leaders of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke for allegedly mishandling a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that led to the deaths of 76 veterans.

We are not second-guessing Healey’s decision to criminally prosecute the Soldiers’ Home superintendent and former medical director in this matter. Our questions and concerns are over the overall investigative goals, or lack thereof, that not only Healey, but Governor Baker and the Legislature have with respect to the COVID crisis in the state.

What happened at the Soldiers’ Home was certainly horrific and potentially a case of grossly negligent management. But the Soldiers’ Home wasn’t the only institutional residential setting in which large numbers of people were infected and have died of the virus.

Our focus has been on the nearly 4,000 staff and residents of residential facilities in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system who contracted COVID-19 since April, and the 110 residents and an undetermined number of staff who have died of it.

Yes, Governor Baker has developed what has appeared to be a thoughtful plan over the past several months for testing the general population in the state for the virus, and reopening businesses and other venues as infection rates have declined.

But some groups of people appear to have been overlooked in this process, and we think people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are among them.

We’ve written repeatedly about the treatment of clients in the DDS system with respect to the COVID crisis as if they were an afterthought. Until very recently, there appeared to be no coherent plan for testing the thousands of residents and staff in the system, and huge gaps still potentially remain in the testing program and public reporting of the results.

DDS staff, in particular, have not faced a testing requirement until this month, and even that requirement is rife with questions and a potential loophole. The administration was slow to get personal protective equipment to the residential DDS system, and it still isn’t clear whether the level of training and oversight of staffing and care in the system is adequate.

Does any of this concern Govern Baker or Attorney General Healey or the state’s legislative leaders? We’ve seen little or no evidence that it does.

One might argue that 110 deaths in the DDS system is a relatively low percentage of the system’s total population. But 110 deaths is 110 deaths too many. How many of those deaths might have been prevented had there been adequate testing and training of staff?

How does bringing charges against two officials who ran one residential facility in the state ensure that there will be improvements in the practices and procedures in all other congregate care facilities?

While criminal charges in the Soldiers’ Home case may be warranted, we would submit that criminal charges should be among the last actions taken by the attorney general in response to a public health crisis like this one. Those charges should come only after the AG has conducted an investigation of the overall response of the state’s congregate care institutions and policies and practices, both public and private.

Those comprehensive investigations are almost never done, and we strongly doubt one was done by Healey’s office. Governor Baker, himself, ordered an independent review focused solely on the Soldiers’ Home deaths, which resulted in a report in June that was widely covered by the media.

That report proved the rule that the investigations that are done are targeted to specific events and almost never offer insights into underlying problems that are usually much wider in scope.

And public officials and administrators react almost exclusively to the resulting media reports in the hope of generating headlines favorable to themselves. It’s no surprise that headline-making indictments have come out of the Soldiers’ Home case.

While those deaths certainly warranted major media coverage, the media have been singularly uninterested in similar problems in the DDS system. After some initial coverage of concerns we, in fact, raised early on about the administration’s inadequate efforts to protect DDS clients from the virus, there has been almost no media coverage from roughly May onwards.

All of this may explain Attorney General Healey’s overall lack of interest in the DDS system. More than a year ago, we contacted Healey’s office to raise concerns about the AG’s apparent lack of focus on abuse and neglect of persons with developmental and other disabilities. While we appreciate that staff from her office did agree to meet with us, we received no indications in response to our subsequent queries that anyone was following up on our concerns.

Given that Healey had, at the time, taken an active role in scrutinizing and penalizing operators of nursing homes that provided substandard care to elderly residents, we asked her office for records of similar fines, settlements or penalties levied against DDS providers from the previous five years. Her office was unable to come up with virtually any records of such actions.

Many in the political system have been celebrating the Soldiers’ Home indictments as a signal that the state is aggressively going after the people responsible for failing to prevent COVID infections and deaths in the commonwealth’s institutions. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing a lot to cheer about at this point.

  1. Maureen Shea
    September 27, 2020 at 8:52 pm

    Very good write up and I agree and it’s so sad

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. September 28, 2020 at 11:03 am

    Governor Healy is doing a great job in her position. I don’t think her actions are based on anything but sincerity.

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  3. Ed
    September 28, 2020 at 11:38 am

    I think one reason for the difference between the Commonwealth’s response in the case of the Holyoke Soldiers Home vs. the DDS system is because the deaths and illnesses at the Soldiers Home occurred (are perhaps still occurring) at a single, focused location, which appears to magnify the tragedy. It’s easier to think about all those cases happening in one place than to have the same perspective about an equally serious situation spread across multiple facilities. Another reason, to be brutally honest, is that veterans are inherently perceived by the general public and mass media to be higher on the pecking order than developmentally disabled individuals. Sad, but true. Neither of these reasons, of course, justifies the discrepancy. Dave, have you considered or tried submitting an op-ed to The Globe or other outlets about this issue?

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  4. janet MARCUS
    September 28, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    Suspect that veterans are higher up in the pecking order than individuals who are often not able to function verbally or self-care. Perhaps consider TV like channel 7 where they would help & air the problem that deals with the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They are the people most do not see or would rather not know exist.

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  5. Glo
    October 5, 2020 at 10:11 am

    I sincerely appreciate all the work you are doing for our very special loved ones.

    Like

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