The Fernald Developmental Center may be almost closed, but it’s now apparently being used as a political football by the administration and the human service providers who are seeking to close at least three additional state facilities for persons in Massachusetts with intellectual disabilities.
In the past month, both the providers and the administration have cited an allegedly high current operating cost for Fernald as a reason to oppose a cost study prior to closing the Monson, Templeton, and Glavin centers. Nevermind that Fernald is not even included in a proposed state budget amendment calling for the cost study.
Moreover, while we haven’t yet seen the Fernald budget numbers the providers and the administration are citing, we understand the reportedly high cost is due to a decision by the administration to maintain an unusually high number of staff at the facility for its 19 remaining residents. The reason for the high staffing level isn’t clear. The guardians of those remaining residents have filed administrative appeals of Fernald’s closure.
During the ongoing budget debate in the Legislature, the Department of Developmental Services and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers have been telling legislators that it is costing as much as $917,000 per resident per year to operate Fernald. As the linked State House News story shows, ADDP President Gary Blumenthal last month cited that Fernald cost figure, which was disclosed by DDS, in order to discredit a House budget amendment requiring an independent cost study prior to closing Monson, Templeton, and Glavin.
The logic of the administration and the provders appears to go something like this: “Because we’re spending an unusually high amount this year to keep the Fernald Center open for the remaining residents, we shouldn’t even waste time studying the cost of closing or maintaining three other facilities where the costs actually happen to be considerably lower. The Fernald cost shows we must close all four of these facilities as fast as possible.”
That this tactic has had an impact in the Legislature became clear when a small group of COFAR members met on Wednesday of last week with a staff member of Senator Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to push for the cost study amendment. The staffer, without any prompting, mentioned she had heard Fernald was costing $18 million this year to operate.
That afternoon, in a conference call, I asked DDS Commissioner Elin Howe about the reported $18 million cost. Howe said the cost was closer to $15.6 million, which would translate to a still sky-high figure of $821,000 per person to keep Fernald running this year. When I asked what the money was being spent on, Howe said the high cost was due to the fact that 95 staff remain at Fernald — a staff-to-resident ratio of 5 to 1.
I was so taken aback by what Howe had just said that I didn’t think to ask her why the administration is maintaining such a high staffing ratio at Fernald. That ratio appears to be the reverse of the 1 to 3.2 staff-to-resident ratio required under federal regulations for Intermediate Care Facilities. The next day, at DDS’s request, I submitted a written question to Howe about the situation. I haven’t yet gotten a response.
Howe, by the way, said that if I wanted to get the same Fernald budget numbers that Blumenthal was citing to the State House News Service and which DDS has apparently provided to legislators, I would have to file a freedom of information request. I did so the next day.
I then heard that day from Senator Brewer’s office that the high staffing level at Fernald is reportedly due to a court order that has prevented DDS from moving the remaining 19 residents there into one building on the campus. But we’ve heard from other sources that there may not actually have been any such court order.
Whatever the reason for Fernald’s current operating cost, to introduce Fernald into a debate over whether to even study the cost of operating the Monson, Glavin, and Templeton centers is disingenuous and misleading. Luckily, Senator Brewer now appears to understand that. “We know it’s not accurate (to link the alleged Fernald cost to the other three facilities),” the staff member said.