Posts Tagged ‘Johanna Kaiser’

Tech schools getting some extra help

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

By Johanna Kaiser, The Lowell Sun

To read the Sentinel & Enterprise version of this story click here.

BOSTON — Students at vocational-technical schools will soon have a new partner as they prepare for careers and college.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray announced yesterday that the state is starting a search for an associate commissioner for vocational, workforce and college-readiness programs.

“This position will work with our community colleges, and work with regional employment boards to make sure that we’re meeting employers’ needs,” Murray said after meeting with vocational and technical school administrators at the Statehouse. “Increasingly, employers say they want more vocational-technical training.”

The new associate commissioner will collaborate with schools, state agencies, colleges and businesses to improve training, strengthen ties with local employers, and open schools to more people seeking job training.

This could include programs to help students earn associates degrees or certificates more quickly; adjusting vocational education to meet demands of employers; or opening schools for night or weekend classes for adults, Murray said.

The state had such a liaison in the past, but the position was eliminated in 1993.

Superintendents of local vocational and technical schools welcomed the news.

“It really highlights the importance of vocational-technical opportunities for the students in the commonwealth and it also sends the message the commonwealth values the work that we are doing,” said Mary Jo Santoro, superintendent of Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro.

Greater Lowell Technical is one of 60 vocational and technical schools in the state, which serve more than 44,000 students. The school has 2,100 students, and has seen demand grow in the past decade into a waiting list of 500.

The region’s other technical schools have seen similar increases in applicants and some have waiting lists.

“If we could get creative about offering opportunities to expand utilization of facilities and programs, that would be great,” Santoro said.

Vocational and technical schools also have higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates compared to overall high-school rates, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We’re the proof in the pudding. Students come every day, work hard, graduate on time and get decent jobs,” said Charles Lyons, superintendent of Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica.

Lyons applauded Murray’s announcement, and said he supports expanding access to the school’s facilities if there is adequate funding.

Shawsheen Tech is already working to improve job placement and expand services. It is building a $4.6 million life-sciences wing to expand its medical and dental-technician programs.

Lyons also supports allowing students to earn associates degrees.

“We are committed to modifying our curricula to meet the needs of the labor market,” he said.

Local superintendents were quick to note that vocational-technical schools are not only focused on job placement, but have increased emphasis on academics

“Parents realize vocational-technical education is quite different than they remember as children,” said Judith Klimkiewicz, superintendent of Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford.

Students graduating from the region’s vocational-technical schools attend a variety of community colleges, and state and private universities, including Harvard, Boston College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Winless Sox come home to new-look Fenway

Friday, April 8th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserSentinel & Enterprise

A version of this story was published on Apr. 8, 2011 by The Sentinel & Enterprise

Boston Mayor Tom Menino (right) stands with Red Sox owner John Henry on Yawkey Way after tour Fenway Park. (Photo: Johanna Kaiser)

Boston Mayor Tom Menino (right) stands with Red Sox owner John Henry on Yawkey Way after tour Fenway Park. (Photo: Johanna Kaiser)

BOSTON–Red Sox fans flocking to Fenway Park’s opening day Friday will encounter some modern changes in the historic ballpark.

New and refurbished seats with cup holders, repaired concrete floors, three energy-efficient high definition video displays and scoreboards, and a new team store and ticket booth were just a few of the improvements unveiled yesterday when Boston Mayor Tom Menino toured the park with Red Sox owner John Henry.

“The Red Sox have done great job,” Menino said before his annual review of the park. “With the improvements they’ve made this ballpark is going to last 40, 50 years, even longer.”

This season marks the the park’s 99th year and the completion of its 10-year $285 million renovation project.

One pending upgrade is the opportunity for fans could to get more than their usual beers and cheers this season if a proposal to expand the sale of hard liquor is approved by the Boston Licensing Commission.

The Red Sox want to expand liquor sales to five stations throughout the park. Mixed drinks are already sold in upper level premium seat sections, but these new drink stands would be accessible to all fans.

Menino and city police officials expressed concern about the proposal last month. The commission held a a second hearing yesterday and is scheduled to vote on the proposal today.

If the city’s commission votes to approve the plan today, the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission will then approve or deny deal.

After learning more details and meeting with team and community leaders, the mayor said he supports the team’s proposal.

“It’s done very responsibly. It’s a similar plan to what we have at TD Bank North Garden,” Menino said. The Garden sells mixed drinks at seven stands that are accessible to all fans.

There was some initial confusion that mixed drinks would be sold throughout the park, but the mayor said the plan was always limited to five locations.

The team agreed to move one of the planned drink stands farther from the bleachers, Menino said.

“They have worked hard to make the park family-friendly and we want to maintain that,” he said.

Besides mixed drinks, the park will also be offering new game day delicacies, including sushi, salads and fresh fruit, lobster and clam rolls, and salt water taffy.

Menino sampled much of the new fare and gave a thumbs-up to everything from the classic chili dog to the new turkey sandwich topped with cranberry sauce and stuffing.

The restrooms, entrances, and exits have been modified to be more handicap accessible and a new ticket booth was added to Gate D to make will-call tickets available at every gate. Televisions were installed in the gate’s concourse so fans can follow the game when up and about.

“This is built to be a fan-friendly ballpark,” said Menino. “They’ve really put a lot of attention into their fans–that’s smart. Their fans are the ones who come here and pay the bills.”

But some fans might not be able to foot the bill. Ticket prices have doubled in the past 10 years from an average price of $28.33 in 2000 to $52.32 in 2010.

Tickets are scarce, too. Nearly 70 percent of tickets sold for this season went to season-ticket holders, corporations, or ticket resellers, The Sun reported Tuesday.

“Ballgame ticket prices are high, and they want to have the ballpark available to all folks,” said Menino.

Menino said the less expensive Cape Cod All-Star game and minor league games at the park give more people access to the park.

“That’s most important,” he said. “ They want to make it affordable.”

Monty Tech earns state honors

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserSentinel & Enterprise

Published on Apr. 6, 2011 by The Sentinel & Enterprise

(Link to article)

BOSTON — Lawmakers and mental-health advocates celebrated Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School for being an “outstanding corporate citizen” Tuesday during the Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition Employment Celebration.

Montachusett was one of 32 organizations from across the state honored for working with local clubhouses to hire people recovering from mental illness.

“Everything we do for the mentally ill — providing them with jobs, making people feel whole again — we give them pride, we give them community spirit,” said Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, presenting school Principal Nick DeSimone with an employment award.

“They are making a difference in the life of a member of the Westwinds Clubhouse,” Rosa said.

The school has worked with Fitchburg-based Westwinds Clubhouse to employ Michelle June, a Fitchburg resident and clubhouse member, as a cafeteria worker for three years.

“Let’s thank cafeteria manager Mary Jane Rossbach for being kind enough and smart enough to hire Michelle. She’s doing an excellent job,” said Rep. Stephen Dinatale, D-Fitchburg, who also presented the award.

“I see it as our role as one of the largest public institutions in the area to support this,” said DeSimone. “It goes right along with the education we’re trying to support.”

June is the only clubhouse member working at the school, but DeSimone hopes to extend the school’s

involvement. “I would love to explore any opportunities we can.”

Clubhouses such as Westwinds assist people recovering from mental illness to obtain jobs and education, and offer support and other services to help members stay in their communities. There are 32 clubhouses in the state serving more than 8,300 people.

About 30 people visit Westwinds daily for an average of 250 people a year, according to Marcia Aucoin, director of the club.

The Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition estimates that 1,900 people found employment through clubhouses, earning about $13.2 million from their jobs in fiscal 2009.

Clubhouses could lose up to $3 million in funding to adult services, a 17 percent cut to their current budget, if the Legislature approves Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed budget that slashes mental-health services by 3.4 percent to $606.9 million.

Today’s lesson: lawmaking

Monday, April 4th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

(Link to article)

BOSTON — Lawmakers looked a lot younger than usual yesterday, but the bright eyes around Beacon Hill weren’t from beauty rest.

Students from more than 100 high schools across the state visited the Statehouse to play the role of their local legislators for the 64th annual Student Government Day.

Gov. Deval Patrick kicked off the event by welcoming students, teachers and “Governor Pham,” the day’s student governor and a junior at Lowell High School, Patrick Pham.

“I particularly like your first name, but I don’t want you to get used to ‘governor,’ ” Patrick joked with the Lowell native as he handed a proclamation to Pham declaring Student Government Day.

“This is your government. It belongs to you,” Patrick said.

“What we do in this building affects, and will affect, you and your future, and it’s important that you are involved.”

Approximately 300 students in suits and jackets acted as representatives, senators and Supreme Judicial Court judges as they learned about state government by playing the part of officials. Patrick encouraged the students to be open to others’ ideas when making decisions.

“You’ve chosen to take things into your own hands, raise your own voice and get involved, and now your charge is to bring others into the conversation,” he said.

The student representatives and senators held a joint committee hearing to discuss two bills. One is aimed at reducing childhood obesity by ending the subsidy for sugary foods and drinks. Another would require schools to teach financial literacy.

“I was excited to get up there and express my opinion,” said William Mumper, a Dracut High School senior, representing Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut. “Health is something I’m interested in, and promoting it for children.”

Mumper and his alternate, classmate Richard Giadone, said they were impressed, and a little intimidated, by their fellow students’ speech and debate abilities. Both said they were having fun learning about the process, however, and were considering pursuing politics or studying political science.

“I really liked being able to debate and just to be able to discover the nuances of the topics and really delving into the issues,” said Hannah Arrighi, a senior at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, who played the part of state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell.

Arrighi, who is interested in studying political science in college, received some advice from Donoghue.

“Knowing that you like to debate means you do have a future in politics,” Donoghue told her student senator. “Make sure you make your point, represent your point, and represent your constituents.”

Donoghue mingled with students, posed for photos and encouraged students’ interest and participation in government.

The student governor was not as certain about his career plans.

“I’m only 17, so I don’t really know. Maybe a pharmacist or optometrist,” said Pham. “Today is a great opportunity to see how government works. So far it’s interesting.”

Pham, a Student Council member at Lowell High, said if he were to pass legislation affecting Lowell it would be to reduce substance abuse by teaching teens the effects of drug use.

Legislator bidding to raise the bar for ballot-question access

Friday, March 25th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

(Link to article)

BOSTON — Grass-roots activists might have to hit the pavement harder next election season under a proposed amendment that would more than double the number of signatures required to get an initiative on the ballot.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, would require signatures from 7 percent of residents who voted in the previous gubernatorial election to qualify an initiative for a spot on the ballot.

Current law requires signatures from 3 percent of such voters.

Provost said she wants to raise the requirement because of lower voter turnout and the increased power of money in signature gathering.

“Civic participation in the commonwealth in gubernatorial elections has fallen so much that an increasingly tiny proportion of the population are getting to determine whether a question is eligible for a ballot,” Provost told lawmakers at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Election Laws on Wednesday.

In the 2010 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, 2.3 million people voted. Under the current system, a petition would need about 69,600 signatures to appear on the 2012 ballot. But an increase to 7 percent would raise the requirement to about 162,400.

Of the 24 states that allow referendum questions on the ballot, Massachusetts has one of the lowest thresholds, second only to California, according to Provost.

Since 1919, 60 proposed laws have made it to the ballot; 28 passed.

“Nothing is more debilitating to democracy than narrowing the role of voters,” state Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, testified before the committee. “We need to acknowledge that the ultimate authority rests not with the elites and the insiders who are all too familiar with the corridors on Beacon Hill, but with the citizenry.”

Provost and other supporters of the amendment argued that ballot initiatives are not always propelled by concerned citizens.

“That idea is certainly one we all cherish, but it’s just not common practice,” Chris Condon, political director of the Service Employees International Union, told the committee.

Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, a member of the committee, opposes the amendment.

“Frankly, I don’t think it’s a problem at all letting people exercise their participation in government,” Lombardo said. “What do you fear will come from a petition voted for by the people, from the same people that elect us?”

Provost said she supports civic participation and the petition process, but not when it becomes “commercial enterprises” run by a well-funded individuals or a group that can hire paid signature gatherers.

“(These campaigns) need a broad-based campaign to be considered a grass-roots campaign, and not become the tool of a single individual,” she said.

Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, said she is concerned about the power money has in controlling the debate on ballot questions. She said the influence of moneyed interests takes power away from citizens.

“I thought we were protected from that usurpation of our power, not my power as a representative, but as a voting citizen,” said Atkins.

There is also a bill being considered by the Senate that would regulate paid signature gathering, which has become more prominent in the state during recent elections. Critics of the amendment were quick to point out that Massachusetts has one of the shortest time periods to collect signatures, and a law that invalidates signatures if there is any stray mark on the page.

Lombardo questioned if the amendment was necessary. “Are we not hurting the individual more than the corporations that pay for as many signatures as they need?” he asked. “A well-financed business person is going to go out and get the signatures no matter how high the requirement.”

Mothers pushing strollers protest cuts to program

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

(Link to article)

BOSTON — Infants and toddlers lined up with their parents outside Gov. Deval Patrick’s office at the Statehouse yesterday as they decried his proposed cuts to early-intervention programs for children with physical and mental delays and disabilities.

More than 300 advocates and parents, most with a toddler on their hip or an infant in a stroller, rallied in the hall outside the governor’s office before meeting individually with state legislators.

The group called the governor’s plan to slash funding to early-intervention programs by 27 percent and toughen eligibility standards shortsighted and detrimental to children and families.

“To cut services at all is not the answer. Kids are still going to need help, kids are still going to need support, and we will see (the problems) when they get into schools,” said Heather David, program director of early-childhood services at South Bay Mental Health Center in Lowell, which serves 500 children in early intervention.

The proposed cuts would strip $7.9 million from early-intervention programs, such as those at South Bay, that provide to children ages 3 and under with individualized treatment and therapy for physical developmental delays and disorders. This would lower funding to $21.5 million from the 2011 level of $29.4 million.

Advocates suggested an alternative budget of $28.4 million, $1 million less than last year’s funding.

Those at “stroller-in” said they understand the state’s budget problems, but argued investing in early intervention programs, which serve 33,000 children statewide, saves money in the long run.

“Many children that come into early intervention do not go on to public schools needing special education,” said Zulmira Allcock, president of the Massachusetts Early Intervention Consortium.

Allcock said early-intervention programs save the state $25 million a year in other costs, such as special education and adult day services.

“Improvements may be small at first, but for some of these kids, the smallest change is a huge improvement,” said Katie Pitkin, a Lowell resident who works as a developmental specialist at Thom Child & Family Services in Woburn, which serves approximately 300 families.

The Anne Sullivan Center, part of the Thom Child Family Services, serves 600 children at any one time in the Greater Lowell area. Margaret Mahoney, the center’s clinical director, said about 1,200 children receive treatment each year.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, early intervention would also be divided into a federal and state programs, each with different guidelines and eligibility standards. Programs funded by federal money would only serve children with a 50 percent level of delay in at least two areas of development, or a diagnosed condition.

Programs funded by the state would treat children with a 30 percent level of delay in any one area, which is the current requirement.

New Middlesex Sheriff Koutoujian is taking a ‘fresh look’

Monday, March 14th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

(Link to article)

BOSTON — New Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian has only been on the job for two months, but he is already promising — and delivering on — significant changes to his department.

“A major goal of mine is to restore public confidence in this office,” Koutoujian said.

Koutoujian, who was appointed sheriff by Gov. Deval Patrick in January, is looking to reform the department by making it more transparent. One of his first steps was to invite local officials to participate in the transition process.

“Considering the circumstances under which I came to office, it was important to have a transition team to take a fresh look at everything,” Koutoujian said during a recent interview in the halls of the Statehouse.

As Koutoujian spoke, he was frequently interrupted by a parade of passers-by eager to congratulate him on his new job. Before being appointed sheriff, Koutoujian was an eight-term state representative from Waltham.

It seemed unlikely the Middlesex sheriff’s job was in his immediate future.

That changed in November, when former Middlesex Sheriff James DiPaola announced he would retire after his plans to take advantage of a state loophole that would allow him to collect his pension on top of his salary were exposed. Days later, DiPaola killed himself after an investigation was launched into his alleged mismanagement of campaign funds.

DiPaola had been sheriff for 14 years. The allegations put the inner workings of his department under intense scrutiny.

Koutoujian, a former Middlesex County prosecutor, is now ordering an external audit of the department’s inventories, regulations, procedures and policies.

“They are doing a top-to-bottom review, so that will start me on a strong baseline of understanding where the office is, from which I can make decisions to decide where it should go,” he said.

Koutoujian has also created an independent, bipartisan, 22-member transition team consisting of police chiefs, corrections officers, and mental-health and substance-abuse experts who will work with the department to evaluate its practices and rate its performance.

Koutoujian says he has steered clear of transition-team meetings and discussions so that he will not sway its conclusions.

New rules aimed to prevent some of the alleged activities that have drawn suspicions about the office’s management have also been introduced by Koutoujian.

Department employees will not be allowed to donate to his re-election campaign, nor can they solicit donations. Employees will now take written exams to be considered for promotions.

“I want people to know they are progressing through the office based on merits and not on arbitrary or capricious standards,” he said.

Local officials are also playing a large part in the department’s work under Koutoujian. Last week, Koutoujian met with police chiefs from cities and towns across Middlesex County, including Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee.

“We’ve talked about collaborative efforts, and we hope that they will continue,” said Lavallee, who praised the appointment of two police chiefs to Koutoujian’s transition team.

Koutoujian said he is eager to continue meeting with area town managers, mayors and police chiefs to hear their suggestions.

“I’ve reached out to them a great deal for their input,” he said. “What do they think is important? How can I provide any benefit to them? I think they are very pleased with that.”

Koutoujian is eager for local police departments to weigh in on some of the high-priced equipment DiPaola procured during his tenure. DiPaola came under fire after he used federal grant money to purchase a mobile shooting range, high-speed watercraft, and other high-end law-enforcement equipment not generally used by sheriffs’ offices.

Koutoujian is also working with local officials to determine what is and isn’t useful to the county.

“If it’s something that either I can’t use or they can’t use, then I don’t really have much use for it,” Koutoujian said.

Some cities do take advantage of the equipment, including Lowell, which uses the community command center as needed and uses watercraft for the annual Southeast Asian Water Festival, Lavallee said.

In addition to equipment, Lowell and 40 other communities receive assistance from the department’s community works program, which allows prisoners with good behavior to work in the community doing maintenance work, such as removing snow from public buildings and fire hydrants.

“They provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources and labor to municipalities that no one even knows about,” Koutoujian said. “That’s something we can bring when we have frozen streets and frozen coffers. There is a public-safety need, and I have a public-safety solution.”

The department’s aid to towns has been welcomed by officials in Lowell, including City Councilor Rita Mercier, who also does data-entry work for the Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re not an island unto ourselves,” said Mercier, who praised Koutoujian’s commitment to partnering with cities and towns. “We appreciate the help that we get in the form of community service and professional help.”

Koutoujian’s commitment to reform extends into the county’s jails, where he is working to improve safety and save money by instituting video conferencing, which is designed to cut back on transporting inmates, which he said poses a flight and safety risk.

Koutoujian is also expanding rehabilitation and educational opportunities to prepare inmates for re-entry into society. Inmates are incarcerated at Middlesex County jails for 240 days, on average.

In addition to high-school equivalency tests and a culinary-arts program that are already in place, Koutoujian is introducing a custodial certification program through Billerica’s Durkin Company, as well as printing and graphic-arts programs.

Koutoujian is also stepping up substance-abuse and mental-health programs. Currently, 80 percent of inmates have a drug or alcohol addiction, he said, and 50 percent are on prescriptive, mood-altering drugs.

“If we can stabilize their mental health, if we can get them to cope with their addictions, and we can get them trained or an educational opportunity, they can very well be on their way to a better life, and that will ensure that the public is safer,” he said.

Mercier said Koutoujian’s leadership on victims’ rights issues as a state representative has shaped his approach to the sheriff’s job.

“He was very integral as an advocate regarding crime victims and social issues,” she said. “He was crucial in bringing his expertise in the criminal-justice system, and he has compassion for those afflicted with violence.”

Health-care plan not ‘one size’

Friday, March 4th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

BOSTON–Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to reduce health costs hinges on the state’s flexibility in making payment policies fair to doctors and caregivers in different situations, according to leaders of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

“One size will not fit all,” Lynda Young, president-elect of the society, told a handful of sate legislators at an informal question-and-answer session on payment reform yesterday.

Patrick has proposed a global payment plan that would give doctors an annual budget for each patient’s care rather than pay a fee for each service or test they provide.

Alice T. Combs, the medical society’s current president, said physicians in small, independent practices often depend on fee-for-service payments to cover monthly costs, which does not affect salaried doctors at larger organizations.

“You have to have that versatility to deal with different clinical settings and diversity geographically,” she said.

Lawmakers were also told that practices in remote or rural areas of the state are at a disadvantage because they cannot as easily transition or work in a network of specialists and hospitals.

“We’re not going to be able to say this is the only way to go because if you’re out in a the left corner of the state your not going to be able to fit in,” Young said. “Somehow fee-for service has got to fit in somewhere, so everybody can get captured in this system.”

The society, which represents 23,000 of the state’s doctors and medical students, has proposed a global payment system that allows fee-for-service payments in such cases.

Despite the specific concerns the organization’s leaders praised the global payment plan’s ability to lower costs and improve integrated care, something Coombs said a fee-for-service system alone does not promote.

“Under a global payment system you have a defined population being treated by a defined group,” said Coombs. This improves communication amongst caregivers and with their patients, and reduces unnecessary tests and hospital visits.”

Lowell General Hospital works under a private global payment model with Blue Cross Blue Shield. The hospital’s CEO Norm Deschene has praised the system for improving care and cutting costs at the hospital.

The society has supported past health care reform bills. Both Young and Coombs said they were pleased the state was now working to improve health care and costs.

“Something must be done about the cost of health care. If we don’t address it everything we gained in access and quality could be lost,” Coombs said.

Alarms raised on proposed mental-health cuts

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

Versions of this story were published on Feb. 19, 2011 by The Lowell Sun and The Sentinel & Enterprise.

BOSTON–Lawmakers reviewing the governor’s budget questioned proposed cuts of $21.4 million to mental health services, saying it would diminish care that had been long promised to patients and their families.

“There has been a history of closing institution with the promise that community supports would be there,” Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, said during a House and Senate Ways and Means hearing on health care cuts in Gov. Patrick’s proposed $30.5 billion budget for 2012.

“Those released became a large number of homeless population or in jails because of the lack of fulfillment of that promise,” she said.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, mental health services would be reduced to $606.9 million, a 3.4 percent decrease. Inpatient care would be cut by $16.4 million, or 11 percent. Outpatient services for children and adults would be cut by $2 million and $3 million, respectively.
These cuts would eliminate 160 of the 600 beds in mental health care facilities across the state. They would also reduce and in some cases end non-traditional services such as after-school programs for children and clubhouses for adults.

Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, who was not at the meeting, said he was concerned that proper funding does not go to community programs when patients are released from facilities.

“The care is great when the care is available,” he said. “When the state does not follow up with the appropriate funding then these folks put a strain on these emergency departments.”

Golden referred to a 1996 budget plan that eliminated the 16-bed inpatient facility at Lowell’s Solomon Mental Health Center with the intention of providing local community care.

But Lowell General Hospital closed its 34-bed psychiatric unit in 2002 because of high operating costs. Now, the closest psychiatric units to Lowell are at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and Tewksbury State Hospital, which have 47 and 130 beds, respectively.

Barbara Leadholm, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, told the committee her department was working to ensure only patients ready for discharge would be released. Approximately 100 patients are ready for release at any time, Leadholm said, if there is proper support for them in the community.

“We’re trying to constantly shift services to support successful living in a community,” she said.

Though she was concerned about the cuts this year, Leadholm was optimistic about a new facility planned for the Worcester State Hospital campus that could house another 320 patients by July of 2013.

The large facility, designed to incorporate the now-closed Westborough facility’s patient, would force the department to take $25 million from existing facilities. Over time it would save the department in administrative, staffing and maintenance costs, she said.

Leadholm acknowledged that combining facilities and resources saves money, but it also removes patients from their community.

Golden said Lowell has been struggle with this since their facilities were closed. He is working to find funds to re-open some beds at Solomon Mental Health Center.

“We need to look at closing or scaling back departments that are not directly affecting people,” he said.

Golden said he will ask the House to consider cutting funds to departments such as the Department of Conservation and Recreation as a way of preventing cuts to mental health programs.

“We need to find cuts someplace else,” he said.

Patrick sees health-care savings in payment-system change

Friday, February 18th, 2011

By Johanna KaiserThe Lowell Sun

Published on Feb. 18, 2011 by The Lowell Sun

(Link to Article)

BOSTON — In an effort to curb the rising cost of health care, Gov. Deval Patrick yesterday proposed changing the way doctors and hospitals are paid.

At the center of his proposal is a “global-payment” plan in place of fee-for-service health care. Instead of doctors being paid for each test, treatment and visit, they would receive an annual budget for each patient’s care.

The legislation, filed yesterday, aims to cut health-care costs by giving doctors and hospitals additional incentives to keep patients healthy.

“Health care in Massachusetts is universally accessible, but it is not yet universally affordable,” Patrick said in a speech at a meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce at the InterContinental Boston Hotel.

Patrick said there is no financial incentive for “good care, only more care.”

The governor’s plan is designed to reduce unnecessary procedures and emergency admittances and improve the focus on preventing patients from getting sick. Patrick hopes to have most health-care providers involved in the program by June 2015.

Insurance or health-care providers who do not join the program will not be penalized, but the legislation gives the state’s insurance commissioner the power to reject premium increases if they exceed increases in inflation or economic growth. This is expected to force insurance companies to keep their costs under control, said Patrick.

Last year, Patrick’s administration rejected double-digit premium rate increases by the state’s largest insurers. When the companies proposed their annual increases last week, they were all under 10 percent.

“We take no pride in delivering premiums that are high,” said Andrew Dreyfus, CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, who supports the governor’s proposal. “These regulations are a more sensible approach to put that pressure on us to force hospitals and physicians to moderate the increases they ask of us.”

Dreyfus said doctors and hospitals would not be earning less money under this plan. They would be getting paid to keep patients healthy, rather than administering excessive tests or treatments, he said.

Blue Cross runs its own global payment model with several hospitals around the state, including Lowell General Hospital, which was one of the first community hospitals to sign on to the program in May 2009.

These hospitals have continued to make a profit under the system, as well as cut the rate of cost increases by at least half in the first year. A third of doctors are now following this model, said Dreyfus.

Norm Deschene, Lowell General’s CEO and chairman-elect of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, advised Patrick when he was crafting this legislation. Deschene said he recommended instituting a global-payment system to improve care and efficiency.

“The alternative quality-care contact has been improving the quality of care for patients in the Merrimack Valley while reducing the costs to provide that enhanced level of care — something that benefits patients, physicians and hospitals,” Deschene said in a statement.

Medical malpractice laws would also be updated under the legislation to promote communication between patients and doctors and reduce the number of lawsuits.

Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said they plan to work with Republicans and Democrats to modify, perfect and pass the proposal during this legislative session.

“Because I expect a long, involved debate process, with extensive fact-finding — it’s good to have this proposal early on in the session,” DeLeo said in a statement. “I also look forward to comments from representatives of the many stakeholders whose input on this bill will be important as we build a more cost efficient system.”

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