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New Yorker article on guardianship abuses has familiar ring

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

An article last month in The New Yorker magazine on abuses in the guardianship system in Nevada is beyond disturbing, and its findings echo many of the concerns we have raised about the dysfunction of the Department of Developmental Services and probate court systems in Massachusetts.

The New Yorker article is primarily about abuses by guardians of the elderly, and it gets into an issue we haven’t fully explored, which is the financial exploitation of people who are represented by professional guardians. But we think many of the article’s points are relevant to the system involving DDS-paid guardians in Massachusetts.

As we have seen in several cases in Massachusetts, the DDS-probate guardianship system has trampled over the rights of family members of developmentally disabled persons, including sharply limiting or even eliminating their right in some cases to contact or visit their loved ones. That is also apparently a feature of the system described in the New Yorker piece.

As is the case in Massachusetts, the primary problems with the system exposed by the New Yorker article appear to lie with abuses by attorneys or other professionals who are appointed as guardians of incapacitated individuals. In many of these cases, family members, who would be better suited to be the guardians, are passed over by the courts and excluded from consideration for that role.

The article and previous reporting by The Las Vegas Review-Journal disclose how two professional guardians named April Parks and Jared Shafer used the probate system in Nevada to become court-appointed guardians of hundreds of people who were mostly elderly, and then took control of their bank accounts, estates,and property.

It isn’t clear whether that type of financial abuse has happened to developmentally disabled persons in Massachusetts, but there appears to be a potential for it. In 2008, an investigative article in The Boston Globe found that some 900 DDS clients in Massachusetts received little or no benefit from trust funds containing some $30 million.

Instead, the money was largely siphoned out of the accounts to pay bank management charges, legal bills, and fees charged by the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court system, “which has long neglected its obligation to ensure the funds are expended for the benefit of some of the state’s most helpless citizens.”

In July, COFAR reported that the state’s system of paying attorneys and corporate providers to serve as guardians of DDS clients is poorly overseen and that the system appears to give professional guardians an incentive to do little work representing individual clients while taking on as many clients as possible.

Families have also been victimized financially by the Massachusetts system. As one family member of a DDS client in Massachusetts described the attitude of the various guardians and clinical and court professionals that she dealt with in the DDS-probate system, “it was just a given that our checkbook was theirs.”

The New Yorker reported that without their families even knowing it, in many instances,  elderly people were removed from their homes by Parks and Shafer who then sold their property and pocketed the money. Parks was indicted last spring on theft and other charges after the local media finally ran stories on the issue.

The New Yorker article further stated that when family members tried to contest the guardianships or become guardians themselves, “they were dismissed as unsuitable, and disparaged in court records as being neglectful, or as drug addicts, gamblers, and exploiters.”  That sounds familiar to us because it is what we’ve seen in a number of cases in Massachusetts.

Another revelation in the article that sounded familiar to us was that the professional guardians often would not inform families about the care and conditions of their loved ones, and often prevented family members from being able to visit them. The director of an assisted-living facility into which many of the wards were placed, is quoted as saying that families were “devastated that they couldn’t know if the residents were in surgery or hear anything about their health. They didn’t understand why they’d been taken out of the picture. They’d ask, ‘Can you just tell me if she’s alive?’ ”

In one case, an elderly couple was moved with little notice by April Parks to a new assisted-living facility. When their daughter tried to visit them there, Parks refused to let her see her parents. According to the article, Parks later wrote that she had told the woman that “she was too distraught to see her parents, and that she needed to leave.” When the woman refused to leave the facility, Parks had the police called who then cited the woman for trespassing.

This sounds very similar to the reasoning given for keeping David and Ashley Barr from visiting David’s daughter, a developmentally disabled woman who has been ordered kept from their contact by a DDS-paid guardian since November 2015. The Barrs were supposedly too emotional when visiting her even though they said the reason they were emotional was because they often found her to be in a heavily drugged state during the visits.

Another family was prevented from talking to their daughter on the phone for a similar reason.

Another revelation in the New Yorker article that had a familiar ring was a description of the longstanding inaction of investigative authorities when presented with evidence of abuses in the guardianship system.

As we’ve said many times, a first step in reforming the DDS-probate system in Massachusetts would be for the Legislature to enact H.887,  a bill which would establish a presumption that parents of a developmentally disabled person are suitable guardians for that person.

The bill would thus make it harder for parents to be bypassed by probate judges who tend to side with DDS, which often favors the appointment of professional guardians in the place of families.

H.887, however, has been stuck in the Judiciary Committee since last January despite the fact that there appears to be no public opposition to the measure. It has been re-filed by Representative David Linsky in every Legislative session since 1999, but has never gotten out of the Judiciary Committee to our knowledge.

We’re hoping, as usual, that this year will be different. But despite a supportive statement last spring from Representative Claire Cronin, House chair of the Committee, that the bill was her “top priority,” the measure hasn’t moved forward in the current legislative session.

It’s time for the Judiciary Committee to finally act on H.887.  The numbers to call there are:

(617) 722-2396 for the office of Rep. Cronin, House chair; and/or

(617) 722-1280 for the office of Senator William Brownsberger, Senate chair.

As noted, this bill is only a first step. We are continuing to urge others in the Legislature as well to step forward to address the underlying systemic problems in the DDS and probate court systems.

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MassHealth audit casts doubt on claimed savings in privatizing state services

April 4, 2017 1 comment

Last year, State Auditor Suzanne Bump approved a proposal to privatize mental health services in southeastern Massachusetts after the for-profit Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP) claimed it could save $7 million in doing so.

The auditor’s review under the Pacheco Law required Bump’s office to compare the proposed costs of privatizing the services with continuing to carry them out with state employees in the Department of Mental Health.

In a report released yesterday, the auditor maintains that MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid administration agency, made questionable, improper, or duplicate payments to MBHP totaling $193 million between July 2010 and 2015. Those allegedly improper payments appear to have been made under the same contract with MBHP that served as the vehicle for privatizing the mental health services last year.

Under that umbrella contract, known as the Primary Care Clinician Plan, MassHealth paid MBHP more than $2.6 billion between 2010 and 2015.

Given the finding that MassHealth’s total payments to MBHP include $193 million in questionable, improper, or duplicate payments, it would seem it has just gotten harder to argue that privatization of human services has been a great deal for the state.

In fact, it seems possible that one of the reasons MBHP was able to offer bids from two providers for privatizing the mental health services that were $7 million lower than what the state employees could offer was that the company knew it could more than make the money back in duplicate payments from MassHealth.

A description of the MBHP billing arrangement by the state auditor paints a picture of the company as a middle-man between MassHealth and providers of actual services under the Primary Care Clinician Plan (PCCP) contract.

According to the audit, the Commonwealth pays MBHP a fixed monthly fee under the PCCP contract for each member enrolled in MBHP.  MBHP then “recruits and oversees networks of third-party direct care providers who assume responsibility for providing a range of covered behavioral-health care.” MBHP subsequently “pays the providers using the monthly…premiums received from the Commonwealth.”

MBHP’s real role here appears to be as a pass-through of state funds. What MBHP really seems to add to the process is an apparently large layer of bureaucracy.

We have noted that MBHP is a politically connected company whose parent companies manage the behavioral health benefits of  70 percent of MassHealth members.  In April 2015, Scott Taberner, previously the chief financial officer at MBHP, was named Chief of Behavioral Health and Supportive Care in MassHealth.

As we pointed out, Taberner was put in a position to manage the contract with the company he used to work for.

State employee unions, including the Service Employees International Local 509, the Massachusetts Nurses Association,  and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 93 did challenge Bump’s initial approval of the privatization arrangement with MBHP last year for the southeastern Massachusetts mental health services.

The unions maintained that the lower bids submitted for the privatization contract assumed major cuts in staffing at mental health facilities in southeastern Massachusetts, which would be likely to result in lower-quality services. They argued that the Pacheco Law requires that service quality not be affected.

The Pacheco Law requires a state agency seeking to privatize services to submit to the state auditor a comparison of a bid or bids from outside contractors with a bid from existing employees based on the cost of providing the services in-house “in the most cost-efficient manner.”  If the state auditor concurs that the outside bidder’s proposed contract is less expensive and equal or better in quality than what existing employees have proposed, the privatization plan will be likely to be approved.  If not, the auditor is likely to rule that the service must stay in-house.

In December, the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld Bump’s Pacheco Law review.

An SEIU official said to us yesterday the union is reviewing the auditor’s latest audit. We think that at the very least, the audit calls into question the savings claim in privatizing the southeastern Massachusetts mental health services.

More broadly, the audit of the MassHealth-MBHP contract calls into question MassHealth’s system of internal controls in managing state’s $13 billion Medicaid program.

It appears the MassHealth internal control system is so inadequate that the administration was unaware that hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payments were being made to its major contractor. Yet the administration was eager to reward MBHP’s efforts to eliminate state employees and cut staffing for mental health services in order to save a reported $7 million.

The MassHealth-MBHP debacle should serve as a warning to legislators and others that privatizing state services is not an automatic panacea to problems in service delivery and to high costs. Privatization comes with potentially high costs of its own, particularly when the state forsakes its role, as it appears to have done in this case, of adequately managing and overseeing its contracts with service providers.