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Setting the record straight about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s historic contribution to the rights of the disabled

September 30, 2020 6 comments

As the nation celebrates the life and judicial legacy of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we would like to recognize and set the record straight about her major contribution in one particularly vital case to the rights of persons with cognitive disabilities.

Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in Olmstead v. L.C., which has been characterized as the most important civil rights decision for people with disabilities in our country’s history. It may have certainly been that, but not, as is usually claimed, because it held that “unjustified isolation (in institutions) is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability.”

That statement is only half the holding of Olmstead. There was another major element of Ginsburg’s Olmstead decision that has continued to be disregarded by many who have then gone on to mischaracterize the decision as advocating or requiring the end of institutional care. It didn’t.

As our national affiliate, the VOR, has pointed out, Ginsburg wrote a balanced decision that “supports both the right to an inclusive environment and the right to institutional care, based on the need and desires of the individual.”

In other words, the greatness of Ginsburg’s contribution to the rights of the disabled was that her decision was all about choice. It provides a choice between community-based care and institutional care to persons with cognitive disabilities.

In announcing the Olmstead decision on June 22, 1999, Ginsburg stated that that the answer was “a qualified yes” to the question whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “…may sometimes require a state to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in state institutions.”

The key word here was “qualified.” Ginsburg’s majority opinion held:

We emphasize that nothing in the ADA or its implementing regulations condones termination of institutional settings for persons unable to handle or benefit from community settings. . . Nor is there any federal requirement that community-based treatment be imposed on patients who do not desire it.

As Ginsburg stated, community-based care is an appropriate option for those who desire it, whose clinicians support it, and in cases in which states have the resources to reasonably support care in the community system. Unless all three of those conditions hold, institutional care may well be the appropriate setting.

The majority decision included a reference to amicus brief submitted by VOR, which stated that:

Each disabled person is entitled to treatment in the most integrated setting possible for that person – recognizing that, on a case-by-case basis, that setting may be in an institution.

Decision has been misinterpreted

Despite those clear statements, Olmstead has continuously been misinterpreted by policy makers, administrators, and even governmental agencies as requiring the closure of all remaining state-run congregate care facilities in the country and privatizing all remaining residential care. What these advocates have done is to take the choice out of it.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, for instance, has mistitled its technical assistance website, “Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone.” (my emphasis). That is simply not true. Olmstead clearly implied that community integration isn’t for everyone.

In line with this misinterpretation, the DoJ has for years filed lawsuits around the country to close state-run care facilities, whether the residents and their families and guardians have opposed those closures or not. This has caused “human harm, including death and financial and emotional hardship,” according to information compiled by VOR.

While the DoJ has not filed such a suit against the State of Massachusetts, that may be because the state closed four out of six developmental centers that were in operation in the state as of 2014.  Olmstead, however, has been used as a justification in Massachusetts and other states for closing sheltered workshops, as Massachusetts did as of 2016 over the objections of many of the participants and their families.

Those acts and outcomes are not consistent with the plain language of Olmstead regarding the importance of the individual’s personal choice. Nevertheless, facility closure advocates consistently cite Olmstead as justifying their actions.

Community-based care was appropriate for original plaintiffs

The Olmstead lawsuit was brought on behalf of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson of Georgia, who both had diagnoses of mental health conditions and intellectual disabilities, according to a website created by attorneys with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, who represented the women in the case.

Curtis and Wilson had asked the state of Georgia to help them get treatment in the community so that they would not have to live in a mental hospital.  According to the Atlanta attorneys, the doctors who treated Curtis and Wilson agreed that they were capable of living in the community with appropriate supports. However, both women had been waiting for years for their community-based supports to be established.

Thus, the original plaintiffs in the Olmstead case satisfied at least two of the three conditions that Ginsburg set for community-based care in the decision: their clinicians deemed community-based care appropriate for them, and they desired it. But Ginsburg recognized that might not be true of everyone in institutional care.

Olmstead wrongly used to justify continuing privatization of DDS services

The Olmstead decision is based on regulations in the ADA that stipulate that public entities should provide services and programs in “the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs” of persons with disabilities.

In Massachusetts, administrations have long contended that the most integrated settings exist in the form of community-based group homes, the majority of which are run by corporate providers that receive state funding.

The problem with this view is that there have been countless examples of group homes that offer residents little opportunity for community integration. Yet the argument that group homes are more integrated than developmental centers is ingrained among policy makers, journalists, and others. This has made it accepted wisdom that all state-run congregate care facilities should be closed — an outcome that will ultimately lead to complete privatization of care.

That appears to be the goal of federal agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which has issued regulations and provided billions of dollars in grants intended to boost the privatized group home system around the country.

On September 23, for instance, CMS announced the availability of up to $165 million in supplemental funding to states currently operating Money Follows the Person (MFP) demonstration programs. As a CMS press release put it, this funding “will help state Medicaid programs jump-start efforts to transition individuals with disabilities and older adults from institutions and nursing facilities to home and community-based settings of their choosing.”

But while this outcome is termed a choice, the closure of the institutions will actually eliminate the choice that Ginsburg articulated in Olmstead. The VOR amicus brief, as noted, stated that on a case-by-case basis, the most integrated setting may be an institution.

The Disability Integration Act of 2019 would further erode Olmstead choice

Unfortunately, the notion that community-based care is the only appropriate option for people with cognitive disabilities is so ingrained and pervasive that the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation signed onto a bill last year, which would encourage further unchecked privatization of human services, diminished oversight, and reduced standards of care across the country.

The bill, known as the federal Disability Integration Act of 2019 (HR.555 and S.117), would potentially threaten the Wrentham Developmental and Hogan Regional centers in Massachusetts, the state’s only two remaining residential facilities for the developmentally disabled that meet federal Intermediate Care Facility (ICF) standards.

The legislation calls explicitly for the the “transition of individuals with all types of disabilities at all ages out of institutions and into the most integrated setting…” (emphasis added). As such, the bill does not comply with the choice provision in Olmstead.

We have contacted the members of the members of the state’s congressional delegation to urge them to support a change in the language of the bill to respect the choice of individuals, families, and guardians either to get into or to remain in congregate care facilities.

Given that the two versions noted above of this bill are still pending in House and Senate committees in Congress, we plan to remind the members of the Massachusetts delegation of the legacy and words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In 1999, Justice Ginsburg endorsed the idea of a continuum of care for the most vulnerable members of our society. Her decision and message were models of inclusivity. Now at the time of her passing, we think it is important to remember and reflect on that.

Direct care workers need more than an official state day and billboards in their honor

September 14, 2020 3 comments

Governor Baker and an employee union recently honored home care workers in Massachusetts with an official state day and billboards.

But we think those workers might appreciate better pay and health benefits even more.

Baker and the 1199SEIU health care worker union teamed up to declare “Home Care Day” on September 4. The SEIU also funded the placement of 13 billboards in Boston, Worcester, Springfield, and other cities to highlight minority home care workers.

Tim Foley, vice president of 1199SEIU, told the State House News Service he hoped the billboards will “let home care workers know they are valued by so many families across the commonwealth and push elected leaders to invest in the workforce.”

We agree that the governor and Legislature need to do more to narrow the enormous gap that exists between the wages of direct-care workers and the executive salaries of the primarily private providers that employ them.

In 2018, Baker did sign legislation to raise the minimum wage of direct-care and other workers to $15 an hour; but it won’t reach that amount until 2023. In 2017, the Legislature rejected efforts to raise direct-care wages to $15 as of that year, and rejected a bid last year to raise direct care wages to $20 per hour.

A bill (H.4171) that would similarly raise hourly direct care wages to $20 has been stuck in the Health Care Financing Committee since last November.

Yet, it’s not as if the governor and Legislature are reluctant to provide continually rising levels of funding to the providers themselves. It’s just that the provider executives have chosen not to pass much of that increase through to the direct-care workers. Instead, they have greatly boosted their own personal wealth.

We reported  in 2012 that direct-care workers working for corporate providers contracting with the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) had seen their wages stagnate and even decline in previous years while the executives running the corporate agencies were getting double-digit increases in their compensation.

Since 2012, the line item in the state budget for DDS-funded residential providers has increased by nearly 45 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, to over $1.5 billion in Fiscal 2020. That is according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s online Budget Browser.

Yet, as State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office reported last year, while that boost in state funding resulted in surplus revenues for the providers, those additional revenues led to only minimal increases in wages for direct-care workers.

Bump’s May 8, 2019 audit found that the average hourly direct-care wage was $11.92 in Fiscal 2010, and rose only to $14.76 as of Fiscal 2017. That’s an increase of only 24 percent over that eight-year period, an amount that only barely exceeded the yearly inflation rate.

Meanwhile, according to the audit, the increased state funding to the providers enabled them to amass a 237 percent increase in surplus operating revenues (total operating revenues over total operating expenses) during that same eight-year period. The increased state funding was at least partly intended to boost direct-care wages, but it “likely did not have any material effect on improving the financial well-being of these direct-care workers,” Bump’s audit stated.

In 2017, SEIU Local 509 in Massachusetts issued a report similarly asserting that increases in funding to human services providers enabled the providers to earn $51 million in surplus revenues. The union contended that the providers could and should have used the surplus revenues to boost direct-care wages.

Confirming our 2012 findings, the SEIU’s 2017 report stated that during the previous six years, the providers it surveyed paid out a total of $2.4 million in CEO raises. The SEIU report concluded that:

This all suggests that the amount of state funding is not at issue in the failure to pay a living wage to direct care staff, but rather, that the root of the problem is the manner in which the providers have chosen to spend their increased revenues absent specific conditions attached to the funding. (my emphasis)

So, as noted, it isn’t a matter of the providers not having the money. The governor and Legislature need to pass a bill such as H.4171, which would require providers to use up to 75 percent of their total state funding to boost direct-care worker salaries to at least $20 per hour.

In other words, if state-funded providers aren’t willing to pay a living wage to the workers they employ, then it’s time for the state to step in and require them to do so. If that were to happen, Governor Baker would have put some substance behind a declaration of a Direct-Care Worker Day in Massachusetts.

Why the media won’t cover issues of concern to people with developmental disabilities

August 24, 2020 26 comments

Whether it’s due to “cancel culture” or a misguided ideology that the largely privatized system of care in society is functioning perfectly for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, the mainstream media these days just don’t seem interested in reporting about the system.

For a while now, we’ve been debating why it is so difficult to get media coverage in Massachusetts, in particular, of issues of concern to this group of people and their families and guardians.

A letter sent to the New York Times may provide one answer. In the August 20 letter, 75 organizations and leaders in the disability community critique that newspaper’s apparent lack of interest in covering “serious issues facing those with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

The Times has apparently not yet published the letter, which is sponsored by the nonprofit National Council on Severe Autism (NCSA).

The letter points out that the Times, while recently honoring the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), failed to include virtually any mention of persons with intellectual or other developmental disabilities. Yet the paper published over two dozen articles over the past few weeks about people with a wide range of other, non-cognitive disabilities.

As the NCSA’s letter to the Times notes, “the full story” in honoring the ADA would include those people with profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. But in doing so, the Times would have to acknowledge that this group of people do not have “the autonomous decision-making, independent living, and competitive, minimum-wage employment that are the cornerstones of the Disability Rights movement.”

The letter ties the Times’ disregard of the developmentally disabled to “cancel culture.” The letter states:

It is ironic that the Times has excluded the most disabled from its ADA coverage exactly as a debate about “cancel culture” has embroiled this newspaper and others. Severe intellectual and developmental disability should be a bipartisan issue — we, the undersigned, represent the broad range of the political spectrum. But because our stories don’t fit the progressive left’s disability narrative, they have been effectively cancelled — exactly by those who claim to care most about this vulnerable population.

We think the disregard of the developmentally disabled is evident in the mainstream media as a whole. The media buy into an ideology promoted by much of the disability advocacy community that no one, no matter how low their measured cognitive functioning may be, has limits on what they can achieve in the community system.

The problem is that this is an absurd position, and it leads to basic contradictions between the ideology and reality. People with intellectual disabilities do have limits on their ability to function in society. Rather than confront that contradiction, the media appear to have chosen to ignore people with cognitive disabilities altogether.

When we raise issues about the need for institutional care or sheltered workshops for those with intellectual disabilities, the media in Massachusetts don’t want to hear about it. It doesn’t fit the narrative that there is no one who is incapable of functioning perfectly in the community and working in mainstream jobs.

We recently reported that the Baker administration discussed reducing public reporting of data on testing of individuals and staff in DDS-funded group homes for COVID-19. Although we tried to bring our concerns over that issue to the attention of the mainstream media in Massachusetts, no media outlet has run any articles about it.

With only the occasional exception, the mainstream media in Massachusetts do no more than scattershot reporting even on the tragic and ongoing problem of abuse and neglect in the DDS system.

Community-first ideology pushed by successive administrations and corporate providers

Perhaps not coincidentally, the ideological position that the community system of care is working perfectly for everyone fits with a decades-long push by successive administrations in Massachusetts and corporate providers for more privatization of the DDS system. According to the ideology, clients in privatized, community-based residences are completely integrated with their communities and can reach their full potential there, unlimited by institutional constraints.

But while the community-based system has meant more state-funded contracts for providers and skyrocketing pay for its corporate executives, the system has largely failed to integrate its clients, and is beset by a bottom-line mentality that provides low pay, training, and supervision of direct-care staff.

Systematic reporting on inadequacies in care in the privatized system, or on a lack of adequate testing in that system for COVID-19, is not desired by corporate, state-funded providers.

Absurd position that autism is “perfect”

The letter to the Times pointedly criticizes an essay that the newspaper published in July that illustrates the ideology driving media coverage today. The essay by writer Madeleine Ryan, the mother of an autistic child, is titled “Dear Parents: Your Child with Autism is Perfect.”

In it, Ryan stated, “Your child might be verbal, nonverbal, aggressive, passive, introverted or extroverted. It doesn’t matter.” She added, “Your child is perfect. Be skeptical of what doctors, teachers, family members or friends say to the contrary.”

The letter to the Times includes a response to Ryan’s piece by Amy Lutz, founding board member of the NCSA and parent of a severely autistic son:

[Jonah] will never go to college, hold a job, see the world, or have a romantic relationship. He will always require round-the-clock supervision, because he has no safety awareness: he doesn’t look before crossing the street, despite years of instruction; and in one terrifying moment, he tried to jump off a cruise ship because he wanted to swim in the ocean… Jonah’s experience is just as important…and must not be elided from the narrative in favor of some kind of fantasy autism nirvana.

The letter further quotes Lee Elizabeth Wachtel, Medical Director of the Neurobehavioral Unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

When an autistic child has permanently blinded himself from self-injury, broken his teacher’s arm, or swallowed multiple toothbrushes and required emergency surgery, there is nothing perfect or magnificent about it, and it must be remedied.

Warning in the Olmstead decision

The letter to the Times notes a warning by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Olmstead v. L.C. U.S. Supreme Court decision, which cleared the way for expanded privatization of care of the developmentally disabled. In a concurring opinion to the Olmstead decision, Kennedy wrote that:

It would be unreasonable, it would be a tragic event, then, were the (ADA) to be interpreted so that States had some incentive…to drive those in need of medical care and treatment out of appropriate (institutional) care and into settings with too little assistance and supervision.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the ADA and the Olmstead decision itself have been interpreted by the media and many advocates as allowing.

Both the ADA and Olmstead are being used as covers for the real attitude toward the developmentally disabled on the part of the media and so many others in positions of power — they just don’t care.

After long fight by advocates for Nicky’s Law, key state lawmakers seek postponement of its effective date

August 21, 2020 2 comments

The chairs of a key state legislative committee are seeking a nearly year-long delay in establishing a long-sought registry of staff found to have abused persons with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts.

The delay would postpone the effective date of Nicky’s Law from January to November of next year, leading to objections from COFAR and other advocacy organizations that have fought for implementation of the legislation.

State Representative Kay Khan and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, the House and Senate chairs of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee, are both reportedly seeking the delay in implementation of the law at the request of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC).

The DPPC, the state agency charged with investigating abuse and neglect of disabled adults, was put in charge of developing the registry under the new law.

A staff member for Khan declined yesterday to say why the DPPC, along with Khan and Chang-Diaz, are seeking the delay. “We appreciate your concern and are having further conversations,” the staff member wrote in an email in response to COFAR’s query.

On February 13, 2020, Governor Baker signed the bill into law. The legislation establishes a registry of names of employees of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and its providers who have been found by the DPPC to have committed acts of substantiated abuse resulting in serious physical or emotional injury.

Currently, persons applying for caregiver positions in the DDS system must undergo criminal background checks, which disclose previous convictions for abuse and other crimes in Massachusetts and other states. However, even when abuse against persons with developmental disabilities is substantiated by agencies such as the DPPC), it does not usually result in criminal charges. As a result, those findings of substantiated abuse are often not made known to providers or other agencies seeking to hire caregivers.

We have long maintained that these problems have gotten steadily worse as functions and services for the developmentally disabled have been steadily privatized over the years without sufficient oversight of the corporate provider-based system.

Last year, we analyzed DPPC data on a per-client basis of more than 14,000 abuse complaints in the Fiscal 2010-2019 period. That analysis underscored the relative dangers of privately provided, but publicly funded care. We have reported over the years on abuse and poor care are problems that involve providers throughout the system.  

An abuse registry is needed as soon as possible in Massachusetts. At the same time, we think this registry is only a start. Ultimately, the executives of the provider agencies need to be held accountable for the bottom-line mentality in many of their organizations that fails to provide resources for training and supervision of direct caregivers.

We are asking people to call the offices of the Senate and House chairs Children and Families Committee at (617) 722-1673 and (617) 722-2011 respectively, or email Senator Change-Diaz at Sonia.Chang-Diaz@masenate.gov or Rep. Khan at Kay.Khan@mahouse.gov.  Please ask them for a justification of their plan to delay the implementation of Nicky’s Law.

ACLU and SEIU surprisingly and confusingly gang up on congregate care for the developmentally disabled during COVID crisis

July 13, 2020 3 comments

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are usually strong advocates of accountability and transparency in government.

That’s why it is surprising that both of those organizations appear to be using the coronavirus pandemic to further a longstanding agenda, which we never knew they shared, to privatize services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It’s particularly surprising that the SEIU, a human services employee union that represents caregivers in the state’s two remaining developmental centers, would be on board with closing down state-run care facilities.

In a petition filed June 23 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the ACLU, SEIU, and a number of other advocacy organizations appear to start off on the right track in criticizing the federal government for its mismanaged response to the pandemic.

The petition identifies nursing homes, Intermediate Care Facilities for the developmentally disabled (ICFs), and group homes as sites of large numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths that could have been prevented with better guidance for infection control, more testing, and better patient and worker protections.

But the petition then goes on to make a number of, at times, poorly conceived and even confusing claims and recommendations that ultimately appear intended to support a privatized care agenda.

At least some of the confusion centers around group homes, which the petition lumps together with ICFs as sources of “congregate care.”

The petition suggests that among the causes of the infections and deaths is the federal government’s failure “to divert people from entering nursing homes or other congregate settings” or to increase discharges from those settings “to the community.”

The argument the petition makes is that reducing the population in all of those facilities would “make social distancing possible.”

The petition defines congregate settings as including ICFs, psychiatric facilities, and group homes. Yet, group homes are considered part of the community-based system of care in Massachusetts and other states.  As a result, it isn’t clear what the ACLU and SEIU mean in stating that people living in group homes would be among those in congregate settings who should move “to the community.”

The petition, moreover, calls for reducing the population of nursing homes and congregate settings by 50 percent. Should HHS neglect to act within three weeks to enact that and other suggested measures, the groups will sue, the petition states.

It is unclear whether the ACLU and SEIU mean that nursing homes, ICFs, and group homes should all be emptied of 50 percent of their residents, or where those residents would then go.

VOR, COFAR’s national affiliate, issued a statement sharply critical of the petition, maintaining that:

…the ACLU has cast its net too wide, and falsely claimed to represent the interests of everyone receiving federally funded services who is classified as elderly or who has intellectual and developmental disabilities. In doing so, it apparently assumes that all such persons look and feel alike and need the same supports and level of care.

Further confusion over the HCBS waiver

Adding to the confusion over group homes is language in the ACLU/SEIU petition calling on HHS to “provide incentives to states to redesign their Medicaid programs to expand Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) and other community-based services and supports” with the goal of the 50 percent reduction in the population in congregate settings.

Once again, that language is confusing in that group homes in Massachusetts and other states have long been recipients of federal funding under an HCBS waiver of Medicaid regulations governing ICFs. In asking for an expansion of Medicaid funding under the HCBS waiver, is the petition suggesting that the money go toward care in a setting other than group homes?

ACLU/SEIU petition misreads the Olmstead Supreme Court decision

The ACLU/SEIU petition further misreads the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. U.S. Supreme Court decision, which paved the way for expansion of privatized care. Although the 1999 decision held that community-based care should be made available for those who desire it, it nevertheless recognized the role played by institutional care for those who can’t function under community-based care.

The Olmstead ruling stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not condone or require removing individuals from institutional settings when they are unable to benefit from, or do not desire, a community-based setting.”

We have asked the SEIU’s Massachusetts affiliate, Local 509, whether it is in support of the ACLU/SEIU petition. We have not heard back yet, but we hope they are in a position to disavow it.

There is a lot to be concerned about regarding the efforts of both the federal government and the state government here in Massachusetts to protect persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the virus. We’ve raised a lot of those concerns over the past few months.

At the same time, and for that reason, we don’t think it is appropriate for any organization to use the pandemic to support an anti-institutional agenda.

Administration withholding information on COVID-19 conditions in DDS system

April 17, 2020 10 comments

Even as the Baker administration reports daily on COVID-19 infection rates among most of the population in Massachusetts, numbers of infected persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities appear to be being kept under wraps.

Information is coming out sporadically and anecdotally from the media and individuals on the ground.

The Boston Globe and other outlets reported this week that as of Tuesday, 276 people in Department of Developmental Services (DDS) residential settings statewide had tested positive as had 321 staff. Nine people receiving services from DDS had died from COVID-19.

Among the anecdotal information we’re getting:

  • While testing was completed last Sunday of residents at the Wrentham and Hogan Developmental Centers, the staff at Wrentham apparently did not get tested, as the administration had reported. DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder said late yesterday that testing of the Wrentham staff will now take place this weekend.
  • WCVB reported yesterday (April 17) that 40% of residents in three units at the Hogan Center had tested positive for the virus, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The union said that 44 residents and 55 staff members have also tested positive.

While the Department of Public Health (DPH) provides daily updates on deaths and infections due to COVID-19 throughout the state, information has only been provided sporadically by the administration, and on a selective basis to the media, about the situation in the DDS system.

The number of deaths and COVID-19 positive cases in the DDS system appears to be rarely if ever mentioned in press briefings held by Governor Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.

This raises a question whether the administration is placing a lower priority on protecting the DDS population from the virus than it is placing on other long-term care populations such as the elderly and even chronically ill.

Joe Corrigan, a COFAR member and member of the Wrentham Center Board, expressed his frustration in an email yesterday to Sudders and and DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder. He wrote,

Tell us where the decisions are being made. Tell us what the tipping point is for getting real and complete attention to (the Wrentham Developmental Center) and all DDS.  Tell us where our loved ones stand in the pecking order vs. the poor souls at soldiers homes, nursing homes.

COFAR has requested information on numerous occasions on testing results in the DDS system from Sudders and Ryder, and has gotten only limited answers and often no response. We were forced on Thursday to file a Public Records Law request with EOHHS, DDS, and DPH for records on the timeline for testing in the DDS and DPH systems.

Staff not tested at Wrentham Center

As we reported on Wednesday, the administration has engaged Fallon Ambulance Service, a private company, to carry out the testing throughout the DDS group home system and apparently in the state-run developmental centers.

However, contrary to reports from the administration, testing of staff has apparently still has not occurred at the Wrentham Center. The administration had reported that all residents and staff in the Hogan and Wrentham Centers had been tested last Sunday.

Earlier this week, a Wrentham staff member told COFAR Executive Director Colleen M. Lutkevich that, “at this time only the residents (at Wrentham) were tested.” The staff member added in an email that direct care staff were “doing a wonderful job of taking care of the residents at this time, but the reality is they are also the ones that will be bringing the virus in.  There have been several residents that have tested positive, but there still has not been any testing of the staff.”

Yesterday, a DDS official told Lutkevich that Fallon Ambulance said they “would work with us to come back to Wrentham to test the staff there,” but that he had “no specifics on when they may schedule us.” Late yesterday, however, Ryder informed Lutkevich that the testing would take place this weekend.

In his email to Sudders and Ryder, Corrigan pointed to the continued lack of testing of  staff at the Wrentham Center as a critical problem:

 I have no doubt that (administrators and staff at the Wrentham Center) are doing much with little in terms of distancing, etc. but please tell me what is the sense of testing residents without testing the staff who come and go daily and have to be the ones who brought in the virus to the already affected and, no doubt, growing number of victims.

Crisis highlights problem with privatized care

The testing problems are potentially compounded in the DDS group home system. Some 8,800 residents are dispersed around the state in more than 2,000 group homes, most of which are operated by corporate nonprofit providers to DDS. We are estimating that there are some 14,000 to 15,000 direct-care staff serving those residents. All of those people have become potential or actual targets of the virus.

No information has so far been forthcoming from the administration on how long the Fallon testing program will take in the group homes. Fallon is reportedly capable of testing between 500 and 1,000 individuals per day.  We are already hearing anecdotal reports about delays in scheduled testing by Fallon in some group homes.

Fallon is facing the prospect of having to test at least 22,000 residents and staff  in the residences.  That apparently doesn’t count the clinicians, physical and occupational therapists, nurses and others who may still be visiting those homes and might not be there when the testing is being done in a particular home.  We also have no information on testing plans for staff that is not working the shifts at the time of the mobile testers are there.

Group home model presents logistical problems

The COVID-19 crisis appears to show how potentially poorly the privatized care model is at protecting people during pandemics. DDS was reportedly able to test all residents and staff in the state run developmental centers in one day,  with the apparent exception, however, of staff at the Wrentham Center.

Due to the highly decentralized nature of the privatized group home system, it is probably impossible to do the necessary testing within a relatively short time frame unless the administration was to call in the National Guard or another source of large-scale assistance. This raises the question whether the administration considered that, and if so, why they rejected it with respect to the DDS system, but have adopted it for the DPH nursing homes.

It further appears that within the privatized community-based system, highly compensated executives should have been doing strategic planning for the potential occurrence of a pandemic such as this one, and apparently did not do that planning.

A single testing site for group homes might make more sense

COFAR President Thomas Frain suggested that given the wide dispersal of group homes around the state, it might make more sense to test all group home residents at one site such as Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

Frain suggested that if testing at a site such as Gillette were made available and each group home took just one resident per day to the site for testing, all residents and direct-care staff could potentially be tested in as little as 10 days. That is based on Frain’s calculation that there are some 2,500 group homes in total, containing some 25,000 residents and staff.

“Instead of ambulances traversing the commonwealth, they could have put all of those ambulance people at a single testing site swabbing people,” Frain said. Some people who could not be transported, would have to be tested at their residences, and Fallon could do that.

In the final analysis, we think a quote from the late U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro is unfortunately highly relevant to the situation today. Judge Tauro wrote:

The (intellectually disabled) have no potent political constituency. They must rely on the good will of those of us more fortunate than they, and the constitution…

Resident of group home was sickened by an inappropriate anti-psychotic medication as prescription was increased by 500%

March 2, 2020 5 comments

A group home administered an inappropriate and unnecessary anti-psychotic drug to an intellectually disabled woman and increased the dosage by 500 percent last year, according to the woman’s sister.

The 57-year-old woman, who we are referring to as C.J. for privacy reasons, developed tardive dyskinesia after being administered the anti-psychotic drug, Latuda, for nine months, according to her sister, Ellen O’Keefe, who is also an advocate for her.

The staff of the Canton-based group home also left the woman alone on two occasions last June and in January of this year in apparent violation of regulations of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). The group home is operated by Delta Projects, Inc., a corporate provider to DDS.

In one instance, C.J. was admitted to a hospital for treatment of pneumonia after she was left alone by the staff in the residence, O’Keefe said. She was later admitted to the same hospital for treatment of symptoms of the tardive dyskinesia, her sister said.

Tardive dyskinesia is a serious disorder that caused further cognitive impairment in C.J. and involuntary, repetitive body movements, O’Keefe said. She said her sister has also begun to need a walker. O’Keefe, at COFAR’s suggestion, reported the use of the medication on C.J. to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC).

O’Keefe said C.J., who has moderate intellectual disability, can’t read, but has very good communication skills.

Last week, O’Keefe and her family moved C.J. to a new group home run by a different provider, South Shore Support Services. O’Keefe said she was not offered an option by DDS of placing C.J. either in a state-run group home or a residence closer to her family; but the family accepted the placement DDS offered because they wanted C.J. removed from Delta Projects’ care as soon as possible.

C.J. had lived for about four years in the Delta Projects group home. The increasing dosages of Latuda were prescribed by Carine Luxama, a nurse practitioner with Nova Psychiatric Services in Quincy, a subcontractor to Delta Projects.

Ellen and Carole photo2.jpg

Ellen O’Keefe (left) and C.J.  C.J.’s apparently inappropriate placement on an anti-psychotic medication in her group home last year apparently resulted in tardive dyskinesia, a serious side effect.

According to records in the case, Luxama first prescribed a dosage for C.J. of 20 mg per day of Latuda in March 2019, and then periodically upped that dosage to 120 mg by November.  In December, at O’Keefe’s insistence and that of another of C.J.’s sisters (who has asked to be referred to by her first name, Nancy), Luxama agreed to discontinue the medication.

Luxama, who I reached last Wednesday (February 26), declined comment on her role in prescribing the Latuda medication for C.J., saying she is prevented from discussing the matter due to patient confidentiality.

According to Wikipedia, Latuda is used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — mental impairments that can produce delusions, hallucinations, and extreme mood swings. In addition to tardive dyskinesia, serious side effects of Latuda may include neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a potentially life-threatening reaction; an increased risk of suicide, and high blood sugar levels.

Newsweek magazine reported in 2015 on a study in the British Medical Journal showing that anti-psychotic medications were being “grossly over-prescribed” to people with intellectual disabilities. In the study of 9,135 people, 71 percent “did not have the kind of serious mental illnesses the drugs were designed to treat.”

“All along, we had no idea that Latuda was in fact an anti-psychotic medication,” O’Keefe said. “We believed it was in the same class of anti-depressant medications she had always been prescribed by her previous psychiatrists.” 

In 2015, O’Keefe signed a health care proxy statement on C.J.’s behalf, which gave her the authority to make all health care decisions for C.J. and “to give consent to any medical procedures, including treatment with anti-psychotic medication.” However, O’Keefe said that she never gave informed consent to the Latuda that C.J. was placed on, or to its increased dosages.

I have received no response to emails I sent seeking comment on the case to several Delta Projects staff on February 20 and February 25, including to John Pallies, Delta Projects president and CEO.

Family disputes diagnosis of delusions

In her “psych medication” case notes, Luxama wrote on November 1 — some seven months after first prescribing the Latuda — that C.J. was experiencing hallucinations and delusions, and was “having conversations with people no one sees.”

However, O’Keefe strongly disputed that C.J. has ever been delusional, and said she had never previously been diagnosed as psychotic. She said C.J. frequently engages in “self talk,” a coping mechanism for many people with intellectual disabilities. Her self-talk, O’Keefe said, has sometimes been misinterpreted by group home staff as delusional behavior.

O’Keefe said C.J.’s mood swings have largely been the result of her unhappiness with the lack of work activities offered in her day program in recent years. (COFAR has reported that many former participants of DDS sheltered workshops have continued to experience a lack of work opportunities after the workshops were shut down by the state as of 2016.)

In 2014, C.J.’s then long-standing primary care doctor at Brigham & Women’s Hospital described her as suffering from “generalized anxiety disorder” and panic attacks resulting from “being far from her family, worrying about her mother’s health, and not having access to a peer group with whom she can interact and be active.” Anxiety disorder and panic attacks do not necessarily involve delusions or other forms of psychosis.

In her case notes prior to November 1, Luxama did not mention any psychotic or delusional behavior on C.J.’s part. In her notes dated March 25, when she first prescribed Latuda, Luxama wrote only that she was prescribing it for “mood swings.”

While anti-psychotic medications are sometimes used to treat non-psychotic anxiety disorder, at least one psychiatric study warned that:

…the side effect burden of some atypical anti-psychotics probably outweighs their benefits for most patients with anxiety disorders. The evidence to date does not warrant the use of atypical anti-psychotics as first-line monotherapy or as first- or second-line adjunctive therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Latuda falls into the class of what are known as “atypical” or “second-generation” anti-psychotics. The study added that:

…some patients with highly refractory anxiety disorders may benefit from the judicious and carefully monitored use of adjunctive atypical anti-psychotics. A careful risk-benefit assessment must be undertaken by the physician, on a case-by-case basis, with appropriate informed consent.

However, O’Keefe said she and Nancy, who is also an advocate for C.J., didn’t know that Latuda was an anti-psychotic medication until O’Keefe received a notice in December from Medicare stating that C.J. had been approved in November for another drug, Ingrezza. That sparked her curiosity, she said, and she looked up Ingrezza and found out it is used to treat tardive dyskinesia. Tardive dyskinesia is known to be caused by anti-psychotic medications.

O’Keefe said Luxama also did not disclose that C.J. was being treated with Ingrezza for tardive dyskinesia, and the group home staff did not respond when O’Keefe asked about the Ingrezza on three occasions in early December.

O’Keefe believes the continually increasing dosages of Latuda caused the tardive dyskinesia disorder, which was exacerbated by a final 50 percent increase in the dosage from 80 mg to 120 mg in mid-November. She said that last increase was not disclosed to her family by the group home until almost a month after the fact.

Left alone twice

During the period in which C.J. was losing cognitive functioning, she was left alone twice by the staff in her group home. In the first of those instances in June, she had pneumonia and was admitted to a hospital for treatment after a visiting nurse not associated with Delta Projects found her seriously ill on a couch in the residence.

C.J. was left alone in the residence for a second time in late January.

DDS Commissioner says leaving C.J. alone was “not acceptable”

O’Keefe reported the first incident in which C.J. was left alone in the group home to DPPC, and reported the second incident directly to DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder. O’Keefe cc’d COFAR in her January 31 email.

In a February 7 email in response to O’Keefe and to COFAR, Ryder maintained that “leaving an individual home alone is absolutely not acceptable and DDS has taken immediate and appropriate action.” 

Ryder said staff at Delta Projects “have been terminated as a result…and DDS has increased oversight and monitoring of the Delta residences.”  She added that DPPC was contacted “and a thorough investigation of the matter will be conducted.”

Ryder did not respond to an email I sent to her on February 20, asking for comment about the medication issue.

C.J. photo1

C.J. on a family outing.

Inappropriate placement on anti-psychotic medication

O’Keefe told COFAR she was surprised to find out in December that C.J. had been placed on an anti-psychotic medication because C.J. is not psychotic and was not diagnosed as such by two other psychiatrists who have cared for her in the past. She said she was never prescribed that class of medication before.

On December 7, 10, and 20, O’Keefe sent three separate emails to Kelley Hegarty, director of residential supports at Delta Projects, asking why C.J. was prescribed a medication that was causing her to have symptoms of tardive dyskinesia. She said Hegarty didn’t respond to any of her emails.

On December 20, after first learning at C.J.’s annual physical that Luxama had raised her prescribed dosage of Latuda to 120 mg from 80 mg, Nancy emailed Luxama, saying that at that physical, she noticed that C.J.’s “whole demeanor, body language, and ability to communicate were greatly impaired.”

“Who ordered this drastic change (in medication), when, and why?” Nancy asked in the email. According to Nancy, C.J. was exhibiting “multiple, troubling side effects” such as rigidity, hand shaking, psychomotor impairment, loss of balance, stiffness of arms and legs, dark colored urine, and flat affect in her face.”

Nancy asked that all of C.J.’s medications be reviewed and that “serious consideration be given to lowering the dosage of Latuda with a goal of slowly tapering her off this medication and eliminating the known side effects that this drug causes.”

Some two weeks after Ellen began inquiring about the Latuda and its apparent side effects, Nancy finally received a response on December 20 from Hegarty of Delta Projects. Luxama was out of the office that week, but Hegarty said she had been able to reach her and that Luxama had “agreed” to decrease C.J.’s dosage of Latuda from 120 mg to 60 mg per day. 

On December 27, Tori Petti, Delta Projects residential manager, provided O’Keefe with a timeline of C.J.’s Latuda dosages. O’Keefe said she and Nancy had insisted on the timeline after discovering that the dosage had been increased from 80 mg to 120 mg without their knowledge.

O’Keefe said the last increase in the dosage of Latuda resulted in a two-week stay for C.J. in January at Milton Hospital where she needed physical and occupational therapy related to her tardive dyskinesia symptoms.

According to Petti’s timeline, Luxama first prescribed a dosage of 20 mg per day of Latuda starting on March 25, and raised that dosage on May 6 to 60 mg because C.J. was “appearing ‘more disorganized and paranoid.”

Then on November 1, Luxama increased the prescribed dosage of Latuda to 80 mg and then to 120 mg on November 14, “due to increased anxiety, mood swings, irritability, paranoia, delusions, and aggressive panic attacks,” according to Petti’s timeline.

O’Keefe, however, later challenged those assessments of C.J.’s behavior, stating in a January 14 email to Luxama that “no reasonable examples of this behavior were cited in your notes.”

The real problem, O’Keefe maintains, was that C.J. was experiencing negative side effects of increasing dosages of an inappropriate medication. “The Latuda was causing an alarming decrease in her cognitive awareness and physical endurance,” O’Keefe said. “She became more docile and passive so Delta staff could handle her more easily and suppress her independence.”

O’Keefe said that on December 27 and January 3, she sent emails to Luxama, seeking her rationale for the final increase in the Latuda dosage to 120 mg. She said she got no response until January 7, when Luxama emailed her and seemed to place responsibility on the Delta Projects staff for not having informed O’Keefe and Nancy of the November dosage increase.

“Being new to (C.J.)’s care team, it was my understanding that (Delta) staff would be communicating the outcome of appointments with all involved parties, and that I would be available to answer any questions or concerns anyone might have,” Luxama stated in the January 7 email.

But while Luxama said she would be available to answer questions and concerns, O’Keefe said Luxama didn’t respond to her follow-up email with further questions on January 14.

In that January 14 email to Luxama, O’Keefe said she and Nancy believed Luxama was relying on assessments of C.J’s mental state by non-clinical staff in her group home and day program. O’Keefe said that C.J. was “very unhappy” because her day program had “practically stopped offering her enclave work (and) there is nothing ‘meaningful’ for her to do.” C.J.’s mood, Ellen told COFAR, “was largely the result of her environment, not because she had mental illness.” 

Referring to Luxama’s alleged reliance on the group home and day program staff assessments in prescribing the Latuda, O’Keefe’s January 14 email added:

The individuals who support (C.J.) day-to-day and made these ‘clinical type of evaluations’ about her behavior do not truly understand the repercussions in their ‘choice’ of words they used in describing (C.J.), and in our opinion this is a very dangerous practice. Why didn’t you ever elicit our input?  When we started this relationship, you agreed to a team approach – including input from Nancy and I who are also her advocates.

Meanwhile, Luxama’s agreement to reduce the Latuda dosage in December apparently did not result in a reduction in C.J.’s symptoms of tardive dyskinesia, at least in the short term.

On January 8, C.J. was taken by ambulance to Milton hospital for testing, according to an email to O’Keefe and Nancy from Petti. “We believe there is a neurological issue with C.J. as her cognitive abilities continue to decline,” Petti’s email added.

In her January 14 email to Luxama, O’Keefe stated that When C.J. was admitted to Milton Hospital, “the emergency doctor noted she was ‘highly medicated’ and inquired about the anti-psychotics she was taking as her cognitive ability was so impaired.” O’Keefe added in her email that the ER doctor “also noted she (C.J.) had trouble moving her jaw and couldn’t speak.  Are you aware that she has had accidents due to incontinence now? We have since learned that this is also one of the adverse side effects of Latuda.”

The day before, O’Keefe stated in a January 13 email to Luxama that “we want her OFF that medication now.” (Emphasis in the original.) Nancy also sent a similar email to Luxama and cc’d DDS officials, making the same request to discharge C.J. from the Latuda immediately. “She (C.J.) does not like the ‘way it makes her feel’ nor does she like the many negative side effects she has had to suffer through,” Nancy’s email stated.

That same day, Luxama did respond to Nancy, stating in an email that she was “sorry to hear she (C.J.) is not liking how the medication makes her feel and will send an order to the residence to discontinue the medication effective immediately. Thank you for reaching out.”

O’Keefe said C.J. is still suffering from the severity of Latuda’s side effects even though she has not been taking it for over a month. She said that in addition to needing a walker, C.J. now has difficulty with fine motor skills and has hand tremors. 

Violations of regulations

We are concerned that the prescription and administration of Latuda to C.J. violated DDS regulations, which state that no medication may be used without informed consent or “in quantities that interfere with the individual’s habilitation.” Habilitation refers to  services and supports that help DDS clients keep or improve skills and functioning for daily living.

In addition, the regulations state that medication “shall not be used by programs…for the convenience of staff or as a substitute for programming.”

It also appears that the inappropriate administration of Latuda to C.J. caused serious physical injury to her, which constitutes abuse under DPPC’s enabling statute. Serious physical injury is defined in DPPC regulations as including “harmful symptoms resulting from the use of medication or chemicals without informed consent or appropriate authorization.”

Left alone for first time in group home

In June 2019, a visiting nurse who was treating C.J. for pulmonary disease arrived at her group home and found her very ill in the residence on a couch. According to O’Keefe, the nurse, who is not associated with Delta Projects, said the only Delta Projects staff member in charge of the clients told her she needed to leave to drive another client to work.

O’Keefe said the Delta staff member made the assumption it was okay to leave C.J. even though it was DDS policy that a residential staff member must always be present. When the visiting nurse completed her scheduled visit with C.J., she needed to leave to see her next client, but did not want to leave C.J. alone. O’Keefe said the nurse found that C.J. was becoming increasingly lethargic and dehydrated.

O’Keefe said that after the nurse waited for over an hour for the Delta staff member to return, “she became exasperated and worried about CJ’s well-being,” and called O’Keefe.   

O’Keefe said that when she arrived at the group home, “I immediately took the nurse’s advice and didn’t wait for the Delta staff member to return because it was obvious my sister needed immediate medical attention.”  She took C.J. to Milton Hospital where she was admitted for dehydration and pneumonia. She was placed on an IV for 3 days.

In an email to O’Keefe on June 27, Colleen Mulligan, DDS area director, stated that she was requesting that Delta Projects “train/ re-train staff on (C.J.)’s medical needs…to ensure that this does not happen again.” Mulligan’s email added that, “At a minimum, the morning staff should have called the main office/Delta on-call person if they did not know what to do. They should not have left her…”

Nearly four months later, O’Keefe said, she received a call from a DDS investigator who had questions about the June incident. “After several questions,” O’Keefe stated in an October 25 email to her sister Nancy, “she (the DDS investigator) “came to the consensus that C.J. should be in a group home with nursing oversight, which I explained Delta does not have.”

Left alone for second time

But the June incident did not mark the last time C.J. was left alone in her group home. It happened again on January 31, O’Keefe said in the email sent that day to DDS Commissioner Ryder.

Once again, it appears DDS regulations were violated by the group home. It appears that the violations were of regulations stating that providers of residential supports must assure the presence of staff whenever an individual is present in the home.

“We are shocked and horrified that DDS would continue to contract with an organization such as Delta Projects who have proven over and over again their inability to provide safe care for our family member,” O’Keefe stated in the email to Ryder. “Agencies like Delta Projects are entrusted with caring for society’s most vulnerable population and DDS is responsible to ensure they are in compliance.”

Governor’s FY ’21 budget encourages more privatization of DDS programs

January 30, 2020 1 comment

Continuing an ongoing pattern, Governor Baker’s proposed state budget for the coming fiscal year is far more generous to corporate provider-based programs overseen by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) than to DDS state-run programs.

Last week, Baker unveiled his $44.6 billion state budget plan, which would provide $2.15 billion in funding to DDS-related line items.

We’ve been concerned for years that the Legislature and a succession of administrations have underfunded DDS state-run budgetary line items — a trend that only encourages further unchecked privatization of those services.

Some key details of our analysis of Baker’s proposed budget for DDS are below:

State-run program line items

A key state-run program to start with is the DDS network of state-operated group homes.

Under Governor Baker’s Fiscal 2021 budget, the state-operated group home line item would be increased by $6.4 million over the current year, which is only just above the rate of inflation. The increase would bring the state-operated group home line item to $237.8 million in Fiscal 2021.

State-run group homes provide a critical backstop of care due to their low staff turnover and relatively low per-client abuse rate. Yet, data also show the number of residents in state-operated group homes has been dropping as the administration and Legislature have targeted more funding to the much larger network of corporate provider-operated group homes. DDS also does not routinely offer state-run group homes as a residential option to individuals.

Meanwhile, the state-run developmental centers line item would be cut in the coming year, continuing the pattern over the past decade. The developmental centers also provide an important backstop of care for some of the most profoundly developmentally disabled residents of Massachusetts.

Under Baker’s Fiscal 2021 budget, the cut in the developmental centers line item would be $560,000, which would amount to an inflation-adjusted cut of almost 3%. That would drop the line item to $104.3 million in Fiscal 2021.

The DDS administration line item, which includes critically needed DDS service coordinators, would actually get a modest increase under the governor’s budget. That line item would be raised by $5.3 million over current-year funding, to $80.2 million. That would amount to an increase of 4.6% when adjusted for inflation.

But among those three state-run program line items (state-operated group homes, developmental centers, and DDS administration), the average overall increase from the current year would be less than 1% when adjusted for inflation.

Moreover, since Fiscal 2012, those three line items will have been cut by an average of about 1.3% in inflation-adjusted terms. The developmental center line item alone will have been cut by $73.5 million, or more than 40%, since Fiscal 2012.

The two charts just below illustrate the trend lines since Fiscal 2012 for key state and provider-run programs in the DDS system.

Chart on provider group home vs. developmental center funding

 

Chart on other provider vs. state-run program funding

The corporate provider line items

In contrast to the state-run programs, three key provider-based line items — corporate provider group homes, provider-run day programs, and transportation services — would be increased on average by 4% from the current fiscal year, under Baker’s budget. Since Fiscal 2012, those three line items will have been increased, on average, by almost 90%.

Baker’s Fiscal 2021 budget proposes increasing the provider group home line item by $9.5 million, to $1.287 billion. That is a relatively small increase, given the size of the line item, and actually would amount to a cut of 1.7% when adjusted for inflation. However, funding for that line item has risen dramatically since Fiscal 2012. If Baker’s budget proposal is enacted, funding for provider group homes will have increased by $407 million, or 46%, over the past 10-year period.

Meanwhile, other provider-based line items would be increased by significant amounts next year, under Baker’s budget plan.

Under the governor’s budget, the provider-run transportation line item would be increased by $3.8 million, to $33.3 million over the current year, which is more than a 10% increase when adjusted for inflation.The provider-run day program line item would be increased by $14.4 million, to $253.9 million. That would amount to a 3.5% increase over the current year.

Since Fiscal 2012, the provider-run day program line item will have been increased by 75%, and the transportation line item by 146%, if the governor’s Fiscal 2021 budget is enacted.

Chart shows some clear trends

These funding trends can be seen in the two charts above. For instance, the first chart shows the opposite directions in which funding has gone regarding provider group homes and state-run developmental centers. We’ve long expressed concerns about the closures of four of the state’s six remaining centers between 2008 and 2014.

At nearly $1.3 billion, the provider group home line item now dwarfs every other DDS line item in the budget.

Similar trends can be seen in the second chart for other provider versus state-run line items. For instance, funding for state-operated group homes peaked in Fiscal 2016 at $238.3 million, in Fiscal 2021 dollars. Baker’s proposed funding for Fiscal 2021 for state-operated homes is still less than what was appropriated by the Legislature in Fiscal 2016.

Meanwhile, funding for provider-run day programs caught up with the funding level for the state-operated group homes in Fiscal 2019 and surpassed the latter line item in the current year. Baker’s proposed Fiscal 2021 budget would continue that upward trend for the day program line item.

While the combined state-run DDS administration and service coordinator line item would get a 4.6% increase next year under Baker’s plan, the funding trend for that line item has been essentially flat after peaking in Fiscal 2016 at $77.4 million.

In contrast, the provider-run transportation line item, while dipping slightly in Fiscal 2017, has continued to rise since then.

Other DDS line items

Overall, the DDS budget would be increased by just under 0.2% under the governor’s Fiscal 2021 budget proposal. It reflects a mixed level of increases and cuts for a number of other line items that don’t fall as clearly into the state-run or provider categories, but are a combination of the two.

The Turning 22 line item would get a very small increase of under $2,000 under the governor’s budget. That would amount to an inflation-adjusted cut of 2.4%. Interestingly, Baker’s budget message touted that he has been “fully funding” Turning 22 for the past four years.  It’s not clear on how that squares with the actual budget proposal.

Respite and Family Supports would be increased under the governor’s budget by $7.8 million, or 8.4%.

The Adult Autism line item would be increased by $7.8 million, or 22.5%.

Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC)

The DPPC line item is not under the DDS budget, but the DPPC performs a key role as the state’s only independent agency that investigates abuse and neglect of disabled adults. Yet this agency is chronically underfunded.

Baker’s Fiscal 2021 budget would increase the DPPC line item by a very modest $129,000, which would amount to an inflation-adjusted increase of well under 1%. Since Fiscal 2012, DPPC’s budget will have been increased by 94%; but the agency is still unable to afford more than a handful of staff to investigate abuse complaints, and must hand most of those investigations off to DDS and other line agencies to investigate.

We hope, in upcoming meetings with key legislators, to impress upon them the importance of a more equitable funding allocation between state-run and provider-run programs.

If current trends continue, state-run services will continue to wither away through declining funding and attrition, and we will end up with a fully privatized system of DDS-funded services. We are concerned that that is a prescription for a race to the bottom in care.

A newspaper’s coverage of abuse and the enactment of Nicky’s Law are steps in the right direction

January 21, 2020 2 comments

One newspaper in Massachusetts has been shining a spotlight lately on the problem of abuse and neglect of persons with developmental disabilities in the state.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature took a strong step last week in barring abusive caretakers from working for providers in the system.

Yet these two positive developments also highlight the fact that the media in Massachusetts in general and the Legislature as a whole have to do more than they have been in recognizing ongoing problems in the care of persons served by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

As we have long maintained, these problems have gotten steadily worse as functions and services for the developmentally disabled have been steadily privatized over the years without sufficient oversight of the corporate provider-based system.

One newspaper’s systematic coverage and one important legislative victory appear to be the exceptions to the rule, which has generally been one of benign neglect on the part of the media and Legislature.

The media exception has been The Springfield Republican, which published an in-depth report on January 10 about a DDS corporate provider, Guidewire, Inc. The newspaper revealed, among other disturbing facts, that at a Springfield group home operated by Guidewire, staff encouraged residents to fight each other and awarded prizes including money, cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the article ran just a few days before the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a bill that would create a registry of caregivers found to have committed abuse or neglect. Such persons would be banned from future employment in DDS-funded facilities. The bill known as “Nicky’s Law,” which was passed by the Senate in October, is expected to be signed into law by Governor Baker within the next 10 days.

A few days before the Springfield Republican article ran, the same newspaper published a follow-up to COFAR’s blogsite report about the termination of a DDS contract with another DDS provider, the Center for Human Development, to operate two group homes in which care was found to be substandard. In that case, COFAR had first reported allegations of poor care raised by the foster mother of a resident of one of the group homes.

Last year, the Republican followed up on COFAR’s initial reporting on CHD, and ran a comprehensive article about the failure of DDS’s licensure inspection process to identify ongoing problems in the two CHD group homes.

Both the reporting by the Republican and in COFAR’s blog posts helped to spur an internal investigation of CHD by DDS. Last fall, the DDS Bureau of Public Integrity cited potential “systemic issues” across CHD group homes.

Guidewire details underscore the need for Nicky’s Law

According to the Republican. eight employees of Guidewire were fired after the “fight club” details were brought to the attention of DDS in 2011. But the employees were given the right to return to work at other DDS-funded facilities in 2018. And while Guidewire was subject to a corrective action plan and staff were retrained, no criminal charges were filed in the case.

To that extent, the Guidewire case underscores the need for Nicky’s Law, which would potentially have prevented DDS from continuing to employ those caregivers.

Persons applying for caregiver positions in the DDS system currently must undergo criminal background checks, which disclose previous convictions for abuse and other crimes in Massachusetts and other states. However, even when abuse against persons with developmental disabilities is substantiated by agencies such as the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), it does not usually result in criminal charges. As a result, those findings of substantiated abuse are not made known to providers or other agencies seeking to hire caregivers. That’s why an abuse registry is needed in Massachusetts.

The Springfield newspaper cited COFAR’s own findings last September in which we identified Guidewire as one of the service organizations in the state with the most abuse complaints filed, substantiated and referred for criminal prosecution.

More recently, we analyzed DPPC data on a per-client basis to control for size of each provider, and found that between Fiscal 2010 and 2019, Guidewire was third highest out of 75 providers surveyed in the number of substantiated abuse cases per client. Guidewire was third as well in complaints referred per client for criminal investigation.

But abuse and poor care are problems that go far beyond one provider. COFAR analyzed the outcomes of more than 14,000 abuse complaints in the Fiscal 2010-2019 period.

Rest of the media needs to examine these issues

The Springfield Republican’s reporting shows the good things that can happen when the media shines a light on issues and activities that are causing harm. But it usually takes a commitment and cooperation among several media outlets to place these matters on the agenda of politicians and policymakers in order to bring about real change.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the Republican, the mainstream media in this state has shown little interest in systematically reporting on the serious problems that afflict the care of persons with developmental disabilities in the DDS system.

Major investigations have been undertaken of abuse of the developmentally disabled in group homes by newspapers in other states in recent years. Those reports include multi-part exposes starting in 2011 by The New York Times, in 2013 by The Hartford Courant, and in 2016 by The Chicago Tribune.

The mainstream media in Massachusetts has yet to to pay more than passing attention to the DDS system. We have also not had any success in getting a response from The Boston Globe to our concerns about currently proposed legislation that would make the state’s process of investigating abuse of the developmentally disabled far less transparent.

Children and Families Committee has yet to demonstrate a serious concern about the issues

We are also trying to persuade the state attorney general and the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee to begin seriously looking at these issues. While we applaud the role played by the Children and Families Committee in getting Nicky’s Law enacted, the committee has yet to demonstrate a sustained commitment to examining and addressing the problems within the DDS system.

In 2018, the Children and Families committee held two informational hearings on abuse and neglect in the DDS system. But members of the general public were not permitted to present verbal testimony at either hearing, and the committee never followed up on those hearings with a report. It’s not clear what, if any, the purpose of those hearings was.

In the final analysis, media attention and the attention of legislators and policymakers are linked. Legislators, in particular, are not likely to act to address society’s problems if the media isn’t focusing on those problems. It seems we’ve entered an age in which the media’s attention is more fractured than ever before.

The enactment of Nicky’s Law is one example of a piece of legislation that the media did get behind. Yet, the enactment of that law is just a first step in what needs to be a comprehensive reform of the system.

Every now and then, a media outlet like The Springfield Republican gives us hope that there still are journalists out there who will go further than reporting on one bill and will examine the issues underlying the legislation.

Once the media focus is there, we think legislators and policymakers will act more systematically on issues of concern to those people they are supposed to protect — the most vulnerable people in society.

 

 

DDS terminates contract with provider to operate two problematic group homes

January 7, 2020 9 comments

The state Department of Developmental Services (DDS) has terminated a contract with a corporate provider to run two problematic group homes in East Longmeadow for persons with developmental disabilities.

The contract termination with the Springfield-based Center for Human Development (CHD) was confirmed to COFAR on Monday (January 6) by the provider.

The DDS action, which appears to be relatively unusual for the department, came after Mary Phaneuf, the foster mother of a resident of one of the group homes, alleged poor care in her son’s residence. She said she was told by DDS that due to the contract termination, her son, Timothy Cheeks, and other residents in his home will have to move this month to another residence operated by another provider in Longmeadow.

Starting in 2018, Phaneuf alleged a lack of proper medical care for Tim, including no documented visits to a primary care physician or dentist for seven years. She also said there were no documented visits to a cardiologist for six years despite Tim’s having been born with a congenital heart defect.

Phaneuf’s allegations led to DDS investigations last year, which found “potential systemic issues” throughout CHD’s residences, according to a DDS summary document obtained by COFAR. Her allegations also led to the adoption of new management policies by CHD.

Mary Phaneuf and Tim Cheeks2

Tim Cheeks with his foster sister Nicole Phaneuf Sweeney

COFAR’s blog posts in July and in August concerning Phaneuf’s allegations, and coverage by The Springfield Republican, led to the DDS investigation of the provider.

No comment yet from DDS

As of today (January 7), DDS had not responded to an email from COFAR on December 18 seeking comment on the status of CHD’s contract to operate the residences or the results of its investigations.  In the same email, which was addressed to DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder, COFAR also requested completed reports and action plans in the case, under the state’s Public Records Law. 

As required by the Public Records Law, DDS did respond on January 3 to the public records request in COFAR’s email, saying that the department expected to produce the requested documents by January 10.

COFAR also sought comment on December 18 from CHD. In an email in response on January 3, Ben Craft, vice president of community engagement for CHD, stated the following:

CHD is fully engaged in comprehensive changes in policy and operations to return and sustain the quality of our DDS services to the high standards that we have upheld across our organization for nearly fifty years. Substantial implementation of these improvements has already occurred, and that work continues.

CHD will continue to work hand in hand with DDS to help ensure that our system of care for people with disabilities is meeting their needs while at the same time empowering them to live with the highest degree of independence possible. CHD will actively participate in continuing dialogue with DDS and other state partners about opportunities to improve public-private partnership in service delivery and policy.

Regarding the continuing operation of the two residences, Craft said in the email that CHD, which owns one of the two homes in question, had entered into a lease arrangement for that residence with the new provider, Mental Health Association, Inc. (MHA), “to ensure a smooth transition as MHA prepares homes to accept individuals now being served by MHA.” MHA is also based in Springfield.

Phaneuf said she was told the lease is temporary and that is why her son and the other residents of his home will have to move later this month to an MHA-run group home in Longmeadow. Phaneuf said she was told that two CHD employees from the original house would transfer to her son’s new residence, but would be employed by MHA.

DDS found “potential systemic issues” with CHD

In December, Phaneuf forwarded to COFAR an untitled and undated summary document from DDS about the investigations by its licensure office and its financial investigation unit of CHD. The DDS summary document appears to contradict previous statements by CHD that the problems Phaneuf raised were largely the result of mismanagement by a single staff member – a former house manger of Tim’s group home.

The summary of the review by the DDS Bureau of Program Integrity, which appears to date from September, specifically stated that:

While some of the issues (raised by Phaneuf) can be attributed to the former house manager, the lack of oversight and control procedures are indicators of potential systemic issues across CHD homes.

The DDS summary document also cited a “significant volume of missing and erroneous records provided by CHD” for DDS’s review, and recommended that a full audit of client funds records for all of CHD’s DDS-funded group homes be done by an external agency or firm. The document also said that the “complete independent audit” should cover a two-year period.

In addition, the DDS document stated that while there was no direct evidence of fraud by CHD, the agency must provide complete restitution of the personal funds “for which they cannot provide validation of appropriate expenditure.”

The DDS document also cited a failure by the former house manager to maintain financial transaction  records, and a lack of communication between the corporate business office and house manager around financial transactions.

CHD did not fully implement new policies

According to the DDS document, a review by the DDS Office of Quality Enhancement, the department’s provider licensure unit, found that as of September, CHD had not fully implemented new policies, oversight, or checks and balances that were adopted in January. The OQE recommended that CHD “improve its service delivery, with a focus on training and supervision of staff, healthcare coordination, and management of individuals’ benefits and personal spending money.”

The OQE also noted in the summary document that:

  • Despite heightened focus over past 7 months, some individuals’ medical needs were still not being met.
  • CHD’s Social Security representative payee and funds management procedures needed to be “thoroughly examined and modified.”
  • Promising oversight mechanisms such as quality assurance audits had not been fully implemented.
  • CHD needed to ensure that staff in key management and supervisory positions in Tim’s and the second CHD group home were “thoroughly knowledgeable of DDS regulations, policies, and licensing standards.”

Tim’s weight gain and subsequent medical diagnosis not reported

In August, in the wake of COFAR’s blog posts about the case, CHD announced that it had adopted a series of new policies to better manage and track care in its group homes, including a system to automatically inform family members and guardians of medical appointments and their outcomes. That new family information system was scheduled to be implemented in that same month, according to CHD.

However, Phaneuf said that in September, she noticed Tim had gained a considerable amount of weight in a short period. She said she met with Tim’s primary care doctor on September 10th and learned only then that in late July, Tim had been found to have gained 20 pounds and that medical lab tests had been ordered.

In an email sent to CHD officials on September 11, Phaneuf said the doctor told her the lab tests showed Tim was prediabetic and had hypothyroidism, and that he needed to be placed on a low-carbohydrate diet with daily exercise immediately. “I was not aware of any of this (prior to speaking to Tim’s doctor),” Phaneuf said.

Phaneuf said that after she contacted DDS and CHD about the situation, CHD failed to provide her with an outline of a proposed  food or exercise plan. And at Tim’s Individual Support Plan (ISP) meeting in October, Phaneuf said she was informed that as of that date, no trainings had been scheduled for the staff regarding a low-carb diet or exercise plan for Tim.  

Phaneuf said that while CHD said it would pay for Tim to see a nutritionist  since his insurance would not cover one, Tim does not have the cognitive ability to adequately process nutritional counseling nor does he have control over his own food. CHD shops, cooks and serves food to Tim, she said.

In his January 3 email, Craft said that CHD could not comment “on specifics of individuals’ medical care.” His email added that, “however, CHD program and leadership staff have maintained regular communication with family members and guardians about medical care, and CHD has done everything possible to ensure all individuals’ health needs are met.”

Phaneuf never received written notice from DDS of the pending closure 

Phaneuf said that in December, she was informed verbally by a DDS official of the termination of the CHD contract for Tim’s group home and the need for him to move to another residence. She said that as of Monday (January 6), she still had not received a written notice from DDS about either of those developments.

CHD a “large, multifaceted organization”

According to its online 2017 DDS licensure report, CHD is “a large, multifaceted organization” that “continues to maintain services throughout western Massachusetts as well as Connecticut.”

As of the start of the current fiscal year, CHD operated 23 DDS-funded group homes in Massachusetts, serving 76 clients, according to data from DDS.

CHD’s most recent online fiscal report to the state, which was for Fiscal 2018, showed that CHD received total operating revenues of $98.4 million primarily from a variety of state agencies, including $9.7 million from DDS.

Questions remain

While the contract termination action by DDS is welcome, it still raises a number of questions, including why the department’s provider licensure system itself did not identify the problems.

Little or nothing was initially done by DDS in response to Phaneuf’s concerns, and no investigations occurred until after COFAR posted about the case last July and there was subsequent coverage about it in The Springfield Republican.

COFAR has never gotten an answer from DDS as to why the normal DDS licensure review of CHD in 2017 did not flag any of the issues that Phaneuf subsequently raised. DDS, as ususal, appears to have reverted to its usual mode of not commenting or issuing any information in response to our queries that isn’t specifically required under the Public Records Law.

As we’ve said many times before, the problems finally identified regarding CHD are not unique to this one provider, but appear to be systematic across the entire DDS provider network. Over the past year, we have met with key lawmakers and with several state agencies, including the offices of the attorney general, inspector general, and state auditor to suggest the need for a comprehensive investigation of the DDS group home system.

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