Budget notes: Disability Law Center questions veto
House overrides Baker on Health Connector pilot
THE DISABILITY LAW CENTER on Friday released its latest report criticizing the state’s management of Bridgewater State Hospital, a day after Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed money for the center to continue its work.
The organization is designated by federal law as the state’s protection and advocacy agency, an independent watchdog with legal authority to monitor state care for people with disabilities. The center has clashed repeatedly with the Baker administration.
In its latest report, the Disability Law Center reiterated calls for closing Bridgewater State Hospital, the state facility for incarcerated or confined people with mental illness, and constructing a new facility under the Department of Mental Health rather than the Department of Correction – a call Baker officials previously rejected.
In the fiscal 2023 state budget that Baker signed Thursday, lawmakers included $125,000 for the Disability Law Center to monitor the efficacy of the reforms to Bridgewater State Hospital, and investigate the physical conditions at the hospital. That was one of the few budget line items that Baker vetoed. He said in his veto message the language “is not consistent with my House 2 recommendation,” referring to Baker’s state budget proposal.
Tatum Pritchard, director of litigation at the Disability Law Center, questioned the veto. “It’s interesting that after such a critical report regarding Bridgewater State Hospital that got quite a lot of attention that our funding would be vetoed,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard said without the funding, the center could not do as intensive monitoring. Additionally, their federal authorization lets them investigate abuse and neglect and visit the places where people live and receive services. The language in the budget expands that authority to do mold testing in areas other than where people live (like staff rooms, visiting rooms, or the basement), and gives them additional authority in monitoring continuity of care – what happens to people who transfer to other state facilities.
“I think it’s very disturbing that the governor would veto that funding,” said Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who has worked on mental health issues. “The Disability Law Center has been reliably monitoring conditions at this state correctional facility for severely mentally ill people.”
“They’ve issued rather disturbing accounts about the conditions there, and it’s very troubling that the governor would veto this important expenditure, which is to make sure that we know what conditions are there,” Balser said. Balser added that the Legislature has consistently supported the funding as a measure to ensure transparency in government.
Baker administration officials say the long-running dispute involves how broad the center’s authority should be to investigate the physical plant at facilities.
The new report issued by the center has many of the same themes as prior reports, which state correction officials have disputed. Last February, the disability group reported pervasive mold throughout Bridgewater State Hospital and suggested it be moved under the auspices of the Department of Mental Health and shut down. Correction Commissioner Carol Mici responded by strongly disputing the findings and said DOC is remediating the mold. The Baker administration has made major operational changes to Bridgewater State Hospital over the last few years, and Baker officials have maintained that the Department of Correction should keep control of the facility.
The latest DLC report looks at information gathered between June and July 2022. The report says more details about mold and asbestos remediation are necessary to determine if the problems are resolved. The report reiterates concerns about the continued forced use of psychotropic medications to restrain people. The report finds there is limited treatment and programming for people who are confined but do not speak English. It also raises concerns about people’s difficulties accessing medical care.
The Massachusetts House on Friday overrode Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of a pilot program that would expand eligibility for the Health Connector.
The vote was 126-27 along party lines to adopt the Legislature’s initial language, rather than accepting Baker’s amendment, which would have studied the issue rather than implementing the pilot. Democrats supported the pilot program, while Republicans supported Baker’s amendment.
However, this is not the final word. Even if the Senate adopts the House language again, the governor can veto it after formal sessions end on Sunday, and lawmakers will not be in session to override his veto.
In both the House and Senate versions of the budget, lawmakers agreed to a two-year pilot program that would expand eligibility for ConnectorCare to individuals earning less than 500 percent of the federal poverty level, about $68,000 a year for an individual, making an estimated 37,000 more people eligible.
According to the health care consumer advocacy group Heath Care for All, this would represent one of the largest expansions of coverage in the state since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The pilot program would be paid for with savings the state has accrued over the past two years from enhanced federal insurance premium subsidies.
Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Christine Barbour, a Somerville Democrat, said, “This is an issue of access to health care but also one of equity.” She cited a recent report from the Center for Health Information and Analysis, which found that 41 percent of Massachusetts residents were unable to access care because of cost last year, with residents of color being the most likely to face challenges.Baker wants to require the Health Connector to study the implementation and costs of the pilot before moving forward. “While I agree with the goal of providing individuals and families with affordable coverage options, there are significant variables and factors that need to be considered before such a pilot can be implemented,” Baker wrote in his amendment letter.
But Barbour said part of the problem is the governor swept money out of the health care account that accepts these enhanced subsidies and put it into the general fund. “At a time when we’re continuing to respond to the pandemic, at a time when people are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and continue to struggle to get basic health care, I’m proud the House is standing up and rejecting the governor’s amendment,” Barbour said.