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Living wage in Massachusetts suffers a setback

In an apparently little-noticed setback to the effort to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts, the legislative conference committee on the state budget rejected a living wage for direct-care workers in human services earlier this month.

The conference committee tossed out language that would have required corporate human services providers to boost the pay of their direct-care workers to $15 per hour.

That language had been proposed by Senator Jamie Eldridge and had been adopted in the Senate budget, but it wasn’t in the House budget, so it went to the conference committee. The conference committee chose not to include Eldridge’s language in its final budget even though the inclusion of the language would not have affected the budget’s bottom line.

In a press release issued in May when the Senate adopted his measure, Eldridge termed a $15-per-hour wage for direct-care workers “part of a growing movement to provide a living wage to every worker in Massachusetts.”

An aide to Eldridge said last week that the direct-care wage boost had been requested by SEIU Local 509, the state-employee union that represents human services workers. The aide said, however, that Eldridge had no immediate plans to file legislation to keep the momentum going for that living wage.

We have urged Senator Eldridge to keep the living wage movement going. In the human services arena, the lack of a living wage for direct-care workers appears to be closely related to the rapidly increasing privatization of care.

As state funding has been boosted to corporate providers serving the Department of Developmental Services and other human services departments, a large bureaucracy of executive-level personnel has arisen in those provider agencies. That executive bureaucracy is suppressing wages of front-line, direct-care workers and is at least partly responsible for the rapidly rising cost of the human services budget.

Ironically, a key reason for a continuing effort by the administration and Legislature to privatize human services has been to save money. However, we think that privatization is actually having the opposite effect.

In May, the SEIU released a report charging that major increases in state funding to corporate human services providers during the past six years had boosted the providers’ CEO pay to an average of $239,500, but that direct-care workers were not getting a proportionate share of that additional funding. As of Fiscal 2016, direct-care workers employed by the providers were paid an average of only $13.60 an hour.

Eldridge’s budget language stated that providers must spend up to 75 percent of their state funding each year in order to raise the wages of their direct-care workers to $15 per hour.

While the conference committee enacted deep cuts in DDS and other state-run programs as a result of a growing projected budget deficit, the Senate language on direct-care pay would have only required that providers direct more of the funding they were already getting from the state to their direct-care workers.

The SEIU’s report on the compensation disparity confirmed our own concerns in that regard. A survey we did in 2015 found that more than 600 executives employed by corporate human service providers in Massachusetts received some $100 million per year in salaries and other compensation.

Along those lines, we are concerned that the ongoing privatization of human services is having a devastating impact on state-run programs, particularly within DDS. As we recently reported,  funding for critically important state-run programs, such as state-operated group homes and service coordinators, is being systematically cut while funding is rapidly boosted to corporate providers.

This additional disparity in human services funding is resulting in the elimination of choices to individuals and families in the system and perpetuating a race to the bottom in care.

There appear to be few if any people in the Legislature who are questioning the runaway privatization of human services much less who are willing to buck the trend. An effort to require providers to offer a living wage to their direct-care workers would be a start in that direction.

We hope Senator Eldridge will continue to push for the direct-care living wage, and that he and others will begin to examine the connections that exist between low wages for direct-care workers and the ongoing, unchecked privatization of human services.

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State law that boosted human services funding has helped provider CEOs more than direct-care workers

May 30, 2017 2 comments

A 2008 state law, which substantially raised funding to corporate agencies running group homes for people with disabilities, has resulted in only minimal increases in wages for direct-care workers in those facilities, according to a new report from the SEIU Local 509, a Massachusetts state employee union.

Since the law known as Chapter 257 took effect, the average hourly wage for direct-care workers rose by about 14.8 percent to just $13.60 in Fiscal Year 2016, according to the SEIU report, which was released last week (and got little media coverage, btw).

In contrast, the report noted, the law helped boost total compensation for CEOs of the corporate providers by 26 percent, to an annual average of $239,500.

According to the SEIU, raising wages of direct-care workers employed by provider agencies was a key goal of Chapter 257, and yet those workers “are still struggling to earn a living wage” of $15 per hour. The union contended that the funding increases made possible by Chapter 257 “did not come with any accountability measures, leaving it up to the private agencies to determine their own spending priorities.”

The SEIU report found that human services providers in the state received a total of $51 million in net or surplus revenues (over expenses) in Fiscal 2016, which would have been more than enough to raise the wages of all direct-care workers to the $15-per-hour mark.  Yet, the providers have chosen not to do so.

Last week, the state Senate approved a budget amendment that would require human services providers to spend as much as 75 percent of their state funding each year in order to boost the pay of their direct-care workers to $15 per hour.  The amendment had not been approved in the House, so it will now go to a House-Senate conference committee.

The SEIU report provides confirmation of a report by COFAR in 2012 that direct-care workers in the Department of Developmental Services’ contracted system had seen their wages stagnate and even decline in recent years while the executives running the corporate agencies employing those workers were getting double-digit increases in their compensation.

In January 2015, a larger COFAR survey of some 300 state-funded providers’ nonprofit federal tax forms found that more than 600 executives employed by those companies received some $100 million per year in salaries and other compensation. By COFAR’s calculations, state taxpayers were on the hook each year for up to $85 million of that total compensation.

The SEIU report stated that during the past six years, the providers it surveyed paid out a total of $2.4 million in CEO raises. The highest total CEO compensation in the union’s survey was that of Seven Hills Foundation’s CEO who received a total of $797,482 in Fiscal 2016.  Seven Hills received $125 million in state funding that year, with most of that funding coming from DDS.

The SEIU report stated that the average direct-care employee at Seven Hills makes just $12.47 per hour, more than a dollar less than the average wage for workers across all the organizations analyzed in its report.

Vinfen, the third largest provider in the state, provided its CEO with a total of $387,081 in compensation in Fiscal 2016. Vinfen spent a total of $1.7 million on compensation for its top five executives in that fiscal year.

The potential for double-digit increases in CEO compensation was not mentioned by provider-based advocacy organizations that  actually sued the then Patrick administration in 2014 to speed up the implementation of higher state funding under Chapter 257.

According to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the higher state funding was needed quickly in order to keep up with the rising costs of heat, rent and fuel, and to increase wages to direct-care staff in order to reduce high staff turnover.

In comments in support of the provider lawsuit in 2014, one key provider lobbyist contended that time was of the essence in boosting provider funding. “…Every day that full implementation (of Chapter 257) is delayed, the imbalance and the unfairness grows,” the lobbyist said.

Yet, according to the SEIU, the providers made 3.2 percent, 2.7 percent and 2.3 percent respectively in surplus revenues on average in the Fiscal 2014, 2015 and 2016 fiscal years. The imbalance that existed was actually between executive-level salaries and direct-care wages in those provider organizations.

As a result of the lawsuit, both the Patrick administration and the incoming Baker administration approved major funding increases to the provider-run group-home line item in the DDS budget, even as it was becoming clear the state was facing major budget shortfalls in the 2015 fiscal year.

“This all suggests,” last week’s SEIU report concluded, “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.”

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.

 

 

Data show a recent decline in the developmentally disabled population in state-run residential care

March 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Data provided by the Baker administration show that the number of residents in remaining state-run residential programs for the developmentally disabled has begun to decline, raising questions about the state’s policy for the future of state-run services.

The data, which were provided under a Public Records Law request, indicate that the previous fiscal year (2016) may have been the peak year for the residential population in state-operated group homes and the Wrentham and Hogan developmental centers.

The graph below, which is based on the DDS data, shows the number of residents living in state-operated group homes each year since Fiscal Year 2008:

State-ops census graph

As we have frequently pointed out, the administration appears to have placed a priority on funding privatized residential services offered by corporate providers to the Department of Developmental Services. A question remains, however, as to whether the administration’s policy also entails phasing out state-operated care.

While Governor Baker’s Fiscal 2018 budget proposes $59.9 million in additional funding for privatized group homes, his budget proposes a $1.8 million cut in the state-operated group home account. That would amount to a $6.9 million cut in that account when adjusted for inflation.

Similarly, the governor is proposing a  $2.4 million cut in the state-run developmental centers line item. That’s a $4.9 million cut when adjusted for inflation.

DDS operates or manages both state-run and privatized systems of residential care in Massachusetts. The state-run system, which is now much smaller than the privatized system, includes the two remaining developmental centers and the state-operated group homes.

The ultimate elimination of state-run residential services would take away a key element of choice for individuals and families in the DDS system. State-run residential centers and group homes provide residential care to some of the most profoundly disabled persons in the commonwealth, and they tend to employ staff with higher levels of training and lower rates of turnover than do corporate-run facilities.

COFAR has sent a follow-up Public Records request to DDS, seeking any policy documents that concern the future of state-operated care in Massachusetts.

The administration of then Governor Deval Patrick began closing the remaining developmental centers in Massachusetts in Fiscal 2008, reducing the number of those federally overseen facilities from six to two. Most of the residents in the now-closed developmental centers were transferred either to the Wrentham center or to state-operated group homes, leading to an initial surge in the residential populations in those facilities. But those residential population numbers now appear to be dropping.

According to the DDS data, the number of residents in state-operated group homes rose from just over 1,000 in 2008, when four of the six developmental centers were targeted for closure, to roughly 1,150 in Fiscal 2016. As of the current fiscal year, that number had dropped to about 1,130.

As the graph below shows, both a population surge and drop-off have also occurred at the Wrentham Developmental Center since Fiscal 2008:

ICF census graph

The DDS data appear to provide further confirmation of COFAR’s contention that state-run residential facilities are not being offered as residential choices to persons waiting for residential care in the DDS system. We believe that if those facilities were routinely offered as choices, the number of residents in them would either continue to rise or remain steady,  but would not be declining.

If DDS is failing to offer state-run group homes and developmental centers as options to people waiting for residential care, that situation would appear to be in violation of federal laws, which require that all available services be offered as options.

The Home and Community Based waiver of the Medicaid Law (42 U.S.C., Section 1396), requires that intellectually disabled individuals and their guardians be informed of the available “feasible alternatives”  for care. In addition, the federal Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C.,  Section 794) states that no disabled person may be excluded or denied benefits from any program receiving federal funding.

We think the DDS data closely track the closures of the Fernald, Monson, and Glavin developmental centers, starting in Fiscal 2008, and the transfer of the residents of those facilities primarily to the state-operated group homes and the Wrentham center.

But as we reported in 2014, while 49 new state-operated group homes were built between 2008 and 2014, 28 state-operated homes were closed during that period. The new state-operated homes appear to have been intended to accommodate only the residents of the homes that were being closed and the residents transferred from the developmental centers.

Nevertheless, an undisclosed number of disabled individuals are reportedly waiting for residential services in Massachusetts, although the state does not maintain an official waiting list that would publicly identify the number of people waiting.  The Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council has continued to cite a 2010 survey indicating that some 600 people were waiting for residential services in the state, and up to 3,000 people were waiting for family support services.

As noted, the administration appears to be attempting to meet the demand for residential care by boosting funding to corporate residential providers. While that hasn’t prevented the budgets of state-run developmental centers from increasing, those budgets may be leveling off.

The DDS data, which includes information about the Wrentham and Hogan developmental center budgets, shows increases in those budgets between Fiscal 2008 and 2015. Wrentham’s budget, in particular, appears to have leveled off, starting in Fiscal 2015.

ICF budget graph

It is unclear if or when the administration intends to phase out state-run DDS residential care, but the initial data are cause for concern. If you have a loved one in a state-run facility or are seeking care in a state-run setting, please let your local legislators know about this situation.

You can find your legislators at this link.

DDS providers pushing Gov. Baker to phase out state-run care

February 13, 2017 3 comments

The major lobbying organizations for corporate providers to the Department of Developmental Services appear to be pushing the Baker administration and the Legislature to privatize more and more state-run care.

And the administration and Legislature have so far appeared to be more than willing to accommodate the providers.

Governor Baker’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which he submitted to the Legislature last month, further widens a spending gap between privatized and state-run programs within the Department of Developmental Services. In doing so, it appears largely to satisfy budget requests from both the Arc of Massachusetts and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP).

In fact, the increase proposed by the governor in funding for privatized group homes is $26 million more than the $20.7 million increase the Arc had sought. The ADDP may be a little disappointed only because that organization had asked for a $176 million increase in that account!

The chart below shows the widening gap in funding for key privatized and state-run DDS services over the past several years, adjusted for inflation. Under this trend, funding for corporate-run, residential group homes, in particular, has risen steeply while funding for state-operated group homes and developmental centers continues to be stagnant or cut.

 dds-budget-chart2-fy-12-18

For Fiscal 2018, the Arc requested a $20.7 million increase in funding for privatized group homes (line item 5920-2000), and the governor obliged with an even higher $59.9 million, or 5.4 percent, increase, as noted.*  The ADDP, as noted, wanted a $176 million increase in that line item.

In the privatized community day line item (5920-2025, not shown on the chart), both the Arc and ADDP asked for a $40.2 million increase, and the governor responded with a proposed $13.6 million increase.

At the same time, both the Arc budget request for Fiscal 2018 and the  ADDP request effectively asked for zero increases in funding for the state-run DDS accounts. Those include accounts funding state-operated group homes, developmental centers, and departmental service coordinators. (The column labeled “Request” in the linked Arc budget document is left blank for those state-run program line items. The ADDP budget request simply doesn’t include those line items.)

The governor appears to have more than obliged the provider organizations regarding those state-run accounts as well. His Fiscal 2018 budget proposes a $1.8 million cut in the state-operated group home account (5920-2010). This amounts to a $6.9 million cut when adjusted for inflation.

In addition, the governor is proposing a  $2.4 million, or 2.2%, cut in the state-run developmental centers line item. (5930-1000). That’s a $4.9 million cut when adjusted for inflation.

And the governor is proposing a cut of $96,000 in the DDS administration account (5911-1003). That is a $1.7 million cut when adjusted for inflation, and means a likely cut in funding for critically important DDS service coordinators, whose salaries are funded under the administrative account.

It’s well known that the Arc and the ADDP oppose developmental centers because those two organizations oppose congregate care for the developmentally disabled and support only care in group homes or smaller settings. What may not be as well known is that the Arc and ADDP appear to have no interest in more funding for service coordinators or state-run group homes, in particular.

Late last month, Baker submitted his proposed Fiscal 2018 budget to the Legislature’s House Ways and Means Committee. In a letter to Representative Brian Dempsey, the chair of the budget panel, COFAR requested that, at the very least, the committee approve a plan to redirect some of the governor’s proposed increase in the corporate residential account to the state-operated group home, facilities, and service coordinator accounts.

(We would note that we have been urging this kind of redirection of funding for the past two years, and neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature are listening.)

Service coordinators

Service coordinators are DDS employees who help ensure that clients throughout the DDS system receive the services to which they are entitled under their care plans. In recent years, funding for service coordinator salaries has failed to keep up with their growing caseloads.

A reason for the Arc’s apparent disinterest in service coordinators may be that the organization has long promoted privatized “support brokers,” in which the Arc is financially invested.

The job descriptions of the Arc support brokers and the DDS service coordinators appear to be quite similar. The Arc notes on its website that “consumers or families hire a support broker to help them find appropriate services and supports to thrive in their community.”

The job description of DDS service coordinators states that they are responsible for  “arranging and organizing DDS-funded and generic support services in response to individual’s needs.”

COFAR Executive Director Colleen M. Lutkevich terms the DDS service coordinators “the eyes and ears that make sure that the providers who report to DDS are doing their best for the residents in a large, confusing system. Without them, the provider agencies have total control, and families do not even have a phone number or a name to call outside the provider they are dealing with.”

Underfunding of state-operated group homes

In addition to provider-run group homes, DDS maintains a network of state-run group homes that are staffed by departmental employees. State workers receive better training on average than do workers in corporate provider-run residences, and have lower turnover and higher pay and benefits.

State-operated group homes provide a critically important alternative to the largely privatized residential care system that DDS oversees. But we have found that DDS routinely fails to offer state-operated homes as an option for people waiting for residential care, and instead directs those people only to openings in the privatized residences.

To be clear, we do not object to a highlight of Governor Baker’s budget — his proposed $16.7 million increase in the  DDS Turning 22 account, which would amount to a 222% increase in that account over the current year appropriation.  Turning 22 funds services for a growing number of developmentally disabled persons who leave special education programs at the age of 22 and become eligible for adult services from DDS. This account has been historically underfunded.

But our concern is that as they enter the DDS system, those 22-year-olds will be placed almost exclusively in privatized programs. An important choice is being taken away from them and their families.

As we noted in our letter to the House Ways and Means chair, the pattern of privatization in Massachusetts state government has become almost permanently established even though the benefits of privatization are highly debatable.  Many questions have been raised about the privatization of prisons  and the privatization of education in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the country.

The privatization of human services may be the biggest prize of all for government-funded contractors.  We need to preserve what’s left of state-run services.

(*The $59.9 million figure for the governor’s proposed increase in the corporate provider line item is based on numbers provided by the nonpartisan Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The Arc’s budget document claims the governor’s requested increase was $46.7 million.)

A gritty new book on a survivor of Belchertown State School

October 27, 2016 3 comments

Donald Vitkus spent his childhood years in the 1950’s at the Belchertown State School, one of the large institutions for people with developmental disabilities that used to be common in Massachusetts, but have now largely been shut down.

“You’ll Like it Here,” which is scheduled for publication on November 1 by Leveller’s Press of Amherst, MA, is the ironically titled story of Vitkus’s life, as told to Ed Orzechowski, a COFAR Board member and president of the Advocacy Network, an affiliated organization. A book signing is scheduled for Sunday, November 13, at 4 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, in Florence, MA.

I had a chance to read an advance copy of the book.  It is an emotionally gripping account of the resiliency of the human spirit. The result of more than 40 hours of interviews, it is Vitkus’s recollection of growing up at Belchertown, how that experience shaped the rest of his life, and his “passionate desire that we never return to those days.”

eds-belchertown-book-cover-image2

In 2005, Orzechowski was assisting at a book signing at Holyoke Community College for “Crimes Against Humanity,” a detailed account by Benjamin Ricci of conditions at Belchertown and the other institutions prior to the 1970’s. Ricci had been instrumental in bringing about a class action lawsuit in that decade that resulted in major improvements  in the care and conditions in the facilities.

Following that 2005 book signing, Orzechowski says, a member of the audience approached him.  It was Vitkus, then a 62-year-old student at HCC. Vitkus had actually been responsible for arranging Ricci’s talk.

Vitkus told Orzechowski he had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to help him write his life story. That conversation evolved into Orzechowski’s book.  Vitkus is now an advocate for people with developmental disabilities and is vice president of the Advocacy Network.

Vitkus was sent by a foster family to Belchertown in 1943, when he was six years old.  He had a tested IQ of 41 and was labled “a moron” in the state school records. But as you read this account, you realize just how faulty IQ tests can be.  In fact, Vitkus and many of his fellow “inmates” at Belchertown had to use their wits to survive there.

You may marvel, for instance, at the ingenuity Vitkus and a handful of other boys used in a number of instances to light cigarette butts they had found, using only an empty overhead light socket in a boys bathroom and a strand of steel wool.  Matches were forbidden.

As I read this story, I got the impression that there are actually two main characters in it. The primary character, of course, is Vitkus.  But I found myself viewing Belchertown as a character as well — it’s a brooding presence throughout the book.  Belchertown is the evil institution incarnate.  It is Vitkus’s triumph that he was able to survive Belchertown and get on with his life, and ultimately to help others in the largely privatized group-home system that has replaced the large institutions.

This is a gritty book, and a disturbing one. It is not for the faint of heart. Some of the incidents are mind-numbingly horrifying.

What Vitkus and so many others went through at Belchertown in the 1950’s was the result of an attitude at that time that people with intellectual disabilities were not only sub-human, but that horrendous things could be done to them without fear of retribution.  The residents were abused and treated as prison inmates by many of the staff. The place was overcrowded and unsanitary.

Beyond the abuse, there was an attitude at Belchertown at the time that few of the people living there had any potential to live outside of the institution, or any need to be treated with basic human dignity. For instance, the residents were not even allowed to receive Communion in Catholic services that they attended at Belchertown.

The only person who would receive Communion was the residing priest, Vitkus told Orzechowski, “who would give it to himself while we all watched. We were never allowed to receive, I guess because we never had confession. I think they figured us morons wouldn’t know when we were sinning, anyway.”

And yet, there were exceptions to the prevailing conditions and attitudes at Belchertown:  The actual school on the grounds was a haven for Vitkus.  Unlike most ward attendants, the teachers in the school were encouraging, he notes.

There were little satisfactions, such as the sudden appearance in Vitkus’s ward of a television set, which had been bought by members of the Belchertown Friends Association, a group formed by parents of patients. “Without them, we wouldn’t have known what television was. I wouldn’t have gotten to see the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn.”

TV also showed Vitkus news coverage about the civil rights struggles of the late 1950’s.  These images raised troubling questions for him. “Why were colored people treated like that?” he wondered.  “Why was anyone treated like that? Why did places like Little Rock, Montgomery, and Belchertown exist? Where was justice?”

There were occasional outings from Belchertown as well — to the Belchertown Fair and to Camp Chesterfield, a boy scout camp.

But Vitkus’s experiences at Belchertown were mostly hellish.  At one point, he began refusing to take mind-numbing Thorazine and bit off the finger of an attendant who was trying to jam the pills down his throat.  He spent 34 days in solitary confinement as a result.  “Lithium and Thorazine were chemical restraints used to supplement leather straps,” he states.

In 1960, Vitkus was “paroled” from Belchertown at the age of 17, after graduating from the sixth grade at the school. His IQ now tested at 80, and he was sent to a program run by the Catholic Church called Brightside. Conditions there were remarkably better than Belchertown had been. There was no one there to force meds down his throat, Vitkus notes.

But Vitkus was clearly smarter than his stated IQ. After he did leave Belchertown and was living on his own, he bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from a salesman and proceeded to read it. But he was dogged by the state having classified him “as a moron.” His draft card read 4-F, which meant he was unsuitable for the military.

That 4-F classification was so offensive to him that he resolved to change it; so he went to the local draft board office and got it changed to 1-A.  He was eventually shipped off to Vietnam where he first served as a cook for the Army, then engaged in combat and lost his buddy who was killed in a firefight.  Combined with the experience of Belchertown, Vietnam resulted in continuing guilt feelings and posttraumatic stress disorder for him.

After his return from Vietnam, Vitkus got married to a young woman whom he’d met while he was a resident at Brightside.  They had two children, a boy and a girl.  He also took night classes at a local high school and received a high school diploma.

Yet the wounds inflicted by Belchertown were always still there, even in his marriage. He was incapable of affection with his wife and could not relate in basic ways to his kids, and they all resented it.  Eventually, his wife filed for divorce.

Vitkus  later reconnected with his son, Dave, who became a police officer in Northampton, and the two of them went on an exhaustive hunt together for information about Vitkus’s past.  They first went back to Belchertown, which was then in the final process in the early 1990’s of closing, and later to court houses across the state for information about Vitkus’s mother and family.  With the help of a probate court investigator, they eventually found two of Vitkus’s sisters and a brother, with whom he reunited.

At the age of 52, Vitkus remarried.  But his past still wouldn’t let him be.  When his son Dave applied for a sensitive federal job, Vitkus was questioned during the background check by FBI agents. The agents, who knew about Vitkus’s background, interrogated him regarding some unsolved crimes. It was another reminder that his past was still a part of who he was and who people perceived him to be.

Vitkus eventually lost his job due to the continuing decline of the manufacturing industry in western Massachusetts. But it was the beginning of a new career in caregiving to people with developmental disabilities. He earned an associates degree in human services at Holyoke Community College — his college education was funded by the company that had laid him off.  He began working in a group home and took on a difficult resident there in whom he recognized potential as well as some of his own character traits.

A lingering irony

For me, this book highlights a key irony in the history of Belchertown and the other facilities like it in Massachusetts. The irony lies in the aftermath of the class action lawsuit that Ben Ricci filed in the 1970’s with the help of Beryl Cohen, a Boston attorney, who was the 16th attorney Ricci had approached. The federal court case was overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, who required major improvements in care and conditions in the facilities.

While the state ultimately spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the institutions and the care provided in them, governors of Massachusetts began a major push starting in the 1990’s to close those same facilities and privatize their services.

The question remains whether the privatized group home system is a truly adequate replacement for the upgraded institutions.  As Orzechowski states at the end of the book, Vitkus:

…knows that abuse and neglect still exist in the system. Battles involving agencies like the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, privately contracted vendors, families, whistle blowers and advocates continue—often in court—across the United States.

Ultimately, “You’ll Like it Here” is an uplifting account of the life of a man who survived some of the worst experiences life has to offer. If you want to get a sense of what it was like, and what it took to survive, in large institutions before the intervention of people like Ben Ricci, Beryl Cohen, and Judge Tauro, you should read this book.

Baker administration concedes some congregate care for the developmentally disabled is good, but will still largely prohibit it

August 4, 2016 Leave a comment

In responses to comments made to a federally required plan for community-based care of the developmentally disabled, the Baker administration is conceding that not all congregate care is bad or should be banned.

Yet, the administration’s draft Statewide Transition Plan (STP) still appears to prohibit or restrict most new group homes from housing more than five residents; and it would apparently restrict funding for most other congregate settings, such as farm-based residential programs.  The administration is currently asking for further comments on the draft STP.

The STP is a requirement of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which issued a new regulation in 2014 governing community-based care receiving Medicaid funding. The CMS regulation is intended to reduce reliance on congregate care, but Massachusetts originally appeared to go even further than the CMS regulation in banning congregate care almost entirely.

Along with hundreds of people and other organizations, COFAR submitted comments in late 2014 to the original draft of the STP.  It appears that like us, most of the commenters to that original plan were concerned that the state was going too far in banning virtually all possible forms of congregate care.

As we noted in our comments to the administration in 2014, the Department of Developmental Services appeared to be proposing a ban on new and potentially existing residential settings such as farmsteads, residential schools or settings that are part of residential schools, settings “that congregate a large number of people with disabilities for significant shared programming and staff,” and even new group homes with more than five residents.   Not even CMS was advocating a complete ban on all of those residential options.

Now, after having received those critical comments, the state seems to be willing to continue to fund some forms of congregate care.

In its response to the comments, the Baker administration made the following statement:

The state acknowledges that CMS… has indicated that ‘it is not the intent of this rule (CMS’s 2014 regulation) to prohibit congregate settings from being considered home and community-based settings.’ The …characteristics of any setting (location, geography, physical characteristic and size) are not necessarily determinative of whether a provider can achieve compliance… (my emphasis).

Despite that apparent concession, the Baker administration’s STP states that DDS has determined that 14 corporate providers operating 57 group home sites are not complying with the new CMS regulation.  This lack of compliance is because these residences apparently have “institutional qualities,” either because they house more than five residents or not enough services are provided by community-based providers.

The STP also states that some of these homes may have provided insufficient staff training in “person-centered planning.”  (We have voiced concerns that while person-centered planning is touted as giving developmentally disabled individuals more control over the services they receive and how they pay for them, the process appears to put control over an individual’s funds into the hands of private companies.)

By the way, the administration stated in its responses to the STP comments that the state’s Building Code limits group home capacity to five residents.  Our reading of the applicable Building Code regulation, however, is that it does not set a 5-person limit on all group homes, but rather specifies only that DDS group homes with five residents or less must be classified as single-family or two-family homes (see amendments to 780 CMR. 310.2).

These are, moreover, group homes, and not developmental centers, that DDS has identified as being too institutional.  This raises a concern for us that the federal government and the state are pushing for ever smaller and more dispersed residential settings — a process that diverts more and more taxpayer money appropriated for the developmentally disabled into a grossly unregulated corporate-run service system.

While it appears under the STP as though DDS will allow these 14 providers some leeway in complying with the provisions in the plan, the providers will have to make a range of changes, including potentially relocating their residents to smaller residences.  The STP indicated that this may result in an unspecified additional cost to the state.

The STP also noted that the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP), an influential lobbying organization for state-funded DDS providers, will be in charge of providing assistance to the providers in complying with the plan.

Anti-eviction agreements

One piece of potential good news is that the administration’s STP states that DDS will require providers to sign contractual agreements with residents of group homes that prevents arbitrary and capricious evictions.  This is apparently another CMS requirement.  This could address one of the key problems we’ve identified with provider-operated group homes, which is that they can currently evict residents with minimal notice, particularly in cases in which guardians or other advocates are seen as being pushy or meddlesome.

A portion of the STP also deals with non-residential care.  What stood out was that DDS found that 170 community-based day programs operated by 98 providers did not meet CMS standards due to inadequate daily activities, staffing, and funding.

Administration still steeped in community-first ideology

Despite the apparent softening of its anti-congregate-care position, the administration’s STP still appears to be ideologically opposed to anything not considered sufficiently community-integrated, and therefore too institutional. In its response to some of the comments to the STP, the administration stated that it is its belief that:

all individuals, regardless of their level of impairment, can benefit from integration and access to the community. (my emphasis)

The administration made this statement after noting that it recognized that “…individuals with significant disabilities live in some settings that presumptively do not satisfy the (CMS) community regulation.”  The administration stated that it is not its intent “to force individuals to move from settings or to take away needed services and supports.”  But that is exactly what DDS did when it closed or downsized four developmental centers in Massachusetts, starting in 2008.

So, in effect, while the administration says in the STP that it recognizes that some individuals live in non-community-based settings, it still maintains that all developmentally disabled individuals, regardless of their level of disability, could benefit from being moved to the community system.  It is a community system, however, in which at least some of the services and supports available in “institutional” settings would most probably be taken away.

On the one hand, the administration acknowledges that it is not the size of a care setting that determines whether it is institutional or not, but rather the services provided and the commitment of the staff.  Yet the administration consistently overlooks the fact that just because a care setting is small, that doesn’t guarantee it will be integrated into the community.

In a perceptive post, Jill Escher, president of The Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area, notes that the real purpose of the new CMS regulation is not to eliminate institutional care, but rather “to put the brakes on the creation of new residences and programs that cater specifically to adults with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

In other words, programs for the developmentally disabled cost money, and the CMS is looking to save money by simply eliminating those services.

Here’s Escher’s very apt description of the impact of the CMS regulation and the transition plans of states like Massachusetts:

Though the (CMS) rules talk of “person-centered” and “outcome-oriented” services, where individuals are not “isolated” and are free from coercion and restraint, in Orwellian doublespeak fashion, civil rights and liberation is not the true endgame here. The overwhelming goal is to restrict out-of-home options.

In practice the rules mean if you’re sitting at your parents’ home doing nothing, or in your own apartment without on-site staff, that’s “community integration.” Meanwhile if you prefer a well staffed adult autism program or housing complex, where you are cared for and safe, engaged in the community, and in the company of your friends who may have similar disabilities, your choice is ironically deemed “isolating” by bureaucrats. And therefore subject to the CMS axe.

Jill Barker, who writes The DD News Blog, adds:

Congregate care, providing services to people with disabilities in group settings, is one of many practical solutions to the need for long-term care. It allows for the sharing of resources and lessening of feelings of isolation. It should not be ruled out as an option, although that appears to be the intent of many advocacy organizations.

In my opinion, there is also a quiet war on families who are offered no other alternative but to keep their adult child with DD at home with services that may not be adequate to provide the family with the relief they need and a good quality of life for their disabled family member for the long term.