Every year at budget time, the corporate providers funded by the Department of Developmental Services trot out the Fernald Developmental Center and the families that have appealed the transfers of their loved ones from the center as an example of an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars.
As today’s story in The Boston Herald demonstrates, this year is no exception. There are six or so residents left at the facility, which was targeted for closure by the Patrick administration in July 2010. But because those residents’ appeals are still pending in court or have only recently been decided, Fernald has remained open and is now costing $11 million a year to continue to operate. Ergo, the guardians and advocates of these residents have conspired in an evil plot to force the state to continue to pay to run this huge and unnecessary institution.
The problem with this argument is it’s not true. The reason it costs so much per resident right now to operate Fernald is because the administration never properly downsized the center as the population there was reduced. Admittedly, this would have taken some planning and possibly the construction on the campus of group homes for the remaining residents, which could have been operated cost-effectively.
The Fernald guardians and advocates had long proposed what we considered to be a win-win approach for both the residents and taxpayers, which would have allowed for the continued operation of Fernald and other developmental centers in Massachusetts that provide intensive, federally regulated care for some of the state’s most profoundly, intellectually disabled and medically involved residents. The Fernald proposal included both the downsizing of the facility and a “postage-stamp” arrangement under which the remaining Fernald residents would continue to occupy a small portion of the existing campus while the rest of the campus was opened up to other uses or development.
The administration, however, refused to discuss or even consider anything other than closing Fernald entirely and moving the residents to other locations around the state. About 14 Fernald guardians and family members exercised their legal right to appeal the decision to move their loved ones, many of whom had spent close to their whole lives at Fernald and had benefited greatly from the expert care there.
Yesterday afternoon, I got a call from a Boston Herald reporter, who was dutifully writing up a story about this outrageous situation at the behest of DDS, the Arc of Massachusetts and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP). These three organizations bring up the Fernald situation every year to lawmakers and the media in order to make the case that more state funding should go to DDS corporate providers and less to state-run programs such as the remaining developmental centers and state-operated group homes.
The Herald reporter first asked whether COFAR was supporting or working with the remaining Fernald residents. I said that we haven’t been actively involved in advocating for Fernald for several years because the closure has been in litigation, but that we believe the Fernald guardians have exercised their legal right to appeal the transfers of their wards. I stressed that while the cost per resident at Fernald might be very high right now, those guardians should not be blamed for it because it is the administration that never considered proposals described above to downsize Fernald and operate it cost-effectively. I also said it is incorrect to consider that closing Fernald will eliminate all costs of caring for these people. It will still be expensive to care for those residents in the community, I said, adding that no one knows the real cost because no one has ever done an independent study on it.
I added that the administration never agreed even to negotiate the downsizing and postage-stamp proposals. I also provided the reporter with information about a key cost of DDS care that has not been counted in the developmental center closures: the cost of salaries of the executives running the hundreds of corporate provider agencies that contract with DDS. We have looked at the tax records of more than 250 of these contractors and found that the cost of paying their CEOs, executive directors, and other executives runs to between $80 million and $90 million a year. That’s where the waste of our taxpayer dollars really is.
I wasn’t surprised to see that very little of what I said made it into the actual story, which also made it sound as though COFAR is still actively involved in the fight to save Fernald. The story did accurately quote me as saying the state has mismanaged Fernald and could downsize it; but beyond that no mention was made in the article of the postage-stamp proposal and the administration’s failure to consider it, or of the lack of an independent study on the cost of care in the community system. And there was no mention of the provider executive salary issue.
The story, however, does include a quote from Leo Sarkissian, executive director of the Arc, about how “outrageous” it is to be “spending that amount of money (on Fernald) when there’s the existence of very good options for each of the people living there.” In other words, let’s blame the families for this. And there’s a quote from Gary Blumenthal, president of the ADDP, who termed Fernald “almost a ghost town” — a phrase that provides no valid insight into the situation at Fernald, but predictably made it into the headline of the Herald story.
Sarkissian is also quoted as saying, “Let’s move on. We have so many other important things that are issues.” To that, I’d just ask, who is it who keeps bringing this particular issue up each year?