Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Fernald and the folly of unchecked privatization

Posted by David Kassel on January 14, 2008

A bitter battle over privatization is being fought in federal court in Massachusetts.  It’s one that has garnered little substantive media coverage in the state, yet it promises to have lasting consequences for the care of some of the most vulnerable members of society and for the role of government itself in this state. 

The battle is over the fate of the Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, the nation’s oldest, state-run facility for persons with mental retardation.  The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick, which is seeking to carry out the former Romney administration’s plans to close Fernald and privatize its services, is appealing  U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro’s ruling last year that Fernald must stay open to its current residents.  

By way of disclosure, I have been working as a consultant to The Fernald League for the Mentally Retarded, Inc., a nonprofit, family-run organization seeking to keep Fernald open.   However, I’ve written this and a previous entry, about how the Patrick administration has politicized Fernald cost-benefit numbers, on my own volition.

I think it’s important to know what’s at stake here and what the state is potentially giving up in closing an institution such as Fernald and very likely the five other remaining state facilities in Massachusetts for persons with mental retardation.  (Administration officials insist they have no plans right now to close any facility other than Fernald, but I think it’s unlikely they would be underaking the expense of this legal battle in the U.S. Court of Appeals if they didn’t have ambitions to close other state facilities as well.)

Here’s what the state and its citizens and taxpayers will be losing if the Patrick administration wins its appeal:

1.  They will lose a long-held state asset—190 acres of land and buildings—in exchange for one-time revenues from developers purchasing the property.  The Department of Mental Retardation has already signed 20-year agreements with a contractor to lease homes in the community for some of the transferred Fernald residents.  The state will not own those properties even though it will be paying up to $2 million per home over the 20-year period

I should note that the Fernald League does not oppose the sell-off and development of most of the Fernald Center campus, and has proposed a “postage-stamp” arrangement under which the current residents would remain in a smaller, designated section of the grounds.  The Patrick administration, however, has declined all offers to negotiate such an arrangement.

2.  They will lose a source of high-quality state-operated care for persons with mental retardation.  This care will ultimately be assumed by contractors, who are more interested in preserving their bottom lines.  This is evidenced by the fact that levels of staffing in community-based, privatized group homes are lower than in state facilities such as Fernald, and by and large community-based staff have little or no health care benefits.

It is this lower level of staffing and lower levels of pay and benefits that are driving the administration’s assertions that the state will save money in closing Fernald.  The problem is that facilities such as Fernald serve individuals with the most severe and profound levels of mental retardation and extensive medical needs in the state.  These people don’t represent the average population in the DMR system, who, by and large, have more mild to moderate levels of mental retardation.  And yet the administration insists, without any explanation, that when these fragile Fernald residents are transferred to the community, they will receive equal or better care there.

 3. They will lose the ability to oversee the care and services provided by the DMR.  In a brief filed in 2006 in the federal court case over Fernald, the Wrentham Association, a plaintiff in the case, noted that DMR’s oversight of the community system is inadequate and relies largely on consumer satisfaction surveys and reviews whose reports are not available until long after the data have been collected.

In addition to eroding the ability of the state to oversee care provided in thousands of community residences, the spread-out community system erodes families’ ability to organize and advocate effectively for their loved ones.  DMR officials have shown that they understand the power of this advocacy.  When families of DMR clients have gotten together to hold DMR to account for its treatment those clients, DMR officials have threatened to evict those clients from their residences and split the families apart.

In its notice of appeal last September in the Fernald case, the Patrick administration stated that the decision to close Fernald is:

…consistent with a national shift away from institutional care in favor of community living.  Decades of research indicate that community settings offer people with mental retardation the best care available and the highest quality of life. 

The first sentence of this statement is true, and the second is false.  It’s true that there has been a national shift away from institutional care in the past three decades.  In state after state, families of residents of state-fun facilities have been fighting uphill battles to save them.  What is false is that the privatized alternative to the facilities provides the best care available and the highest quality of life.

In Massachusetts, the 2006 legal brief filed by the Wrentham Association detailed a privatized system of community-based care in Massachusetts that is at the “breaking point.”  Levels of physical and sexual abuse, medication errors, and outright neglect were far higher in the privatized community system on a per-resident basis than in the state facility system, the brief stated.

It is patently false, therefore, to say that community settings provide the best care available or the highest quality of life.  If that was the case, families of residents in institutions would be clamoring to get those residents out of the facilities and into the community settings.  Instead, they’re fighting to keep them in.  This has forced the privatization proponents to adopt the condescending position that these families don’t know what’s best for their own loved ones.

In June 2007, a Boston Globe editorial, headlined “The Folly of Closing Fernald,” called on the Patrick administration to “stop sparring with a judge (Tauro) whose rulings are consistently in the best interest of the Fernald residents,” and craft “a solution that makes economic and therapeutic sense.”  The administration, however, has chosen not to follow either of these pieces of advice.

Simply because a practice or governmental policy has become a trend doesn’t make it inherently good or right.  As the Globe stated, “deinstitutionalization is not the right remedy for every man and woman with mental retardation, despite the assertions of advocates for group homes.”

In Latin America, country after country have been reversing the privatization trend in recent years, recognizing the economic demage that privatization and deregulation have inflicted on their economies since the 1970s.  Is there really agreement in this country that privatizaton and deinstitutionalization have been uniformly good things?



One Response to “Fernald and the folly of unchecked privatization”

  1. Sarah Hostetter said

    I feel strongly that care of those suffering from mental retardation and their families should not be subject to the private marketplace any more than public education should be. With its dual problems of health and education needs, care must be monitored intelligently and thoughtfully. The lowest price doesn’t always make the best solution.

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