Posts Tagged ‘sarah favot’

Millions More Prescriptions to be Tracked by the State

Friday, December 31st, 2010

By Sarah Favot and Caroline Hailey

BOSTON – Massachusetts residents faced a new routine when they pick up certain prescription drugs at the pharmacy on Jan. 1.

Under a law passed last summer they will have to show a driver’s license or another approved ID before the druggist can give them prescriptions ranging from addictive opiates to certain medicines for diarrhea. Their purchases will be recorded in a massive database that will include their names, addresses and the kinds and amount of pills they take.

The goal of the law is to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, particularly among teens and young adults. According to one federal survey Massachusetts ranked 8th among those 18-to-25 who have used drugs not prescribed to them.

The law is similar to legislation passed in 33 states and being initiated in another 10 states. Studies suggest the programs can help combat prescription drug abuse.

But the law has other consequences that play against the national debate about the size and reach of government.

It will require more clerical work for doctors and druggists as the number of prescriptions monitored expands from the current 3.5 million a year to an estimated range of nine to 11 million.

The Department of Public Health will take on expanded responsibilities. A new set of committees will be created to determine policies and practices. Schools may have to develop new drug awareness programs for their students.

The new law also will cost more money, but by how much remains uncertain.

Rep. Harriet Stanley, D-West Newbury, chairwoman on the Joint Committee on Healthcare Financing, says that when the bill was under consideration, the Department of Public Health said the direct costs of the new monitoring system – estimated at between $1.35 million and $1.4 million – would be absorbed by the department.

But the department later requested $528,000 to roll out the programs mandated by the bill.

“This bill is a great example of how costs increase without you realizing. We thought we had a grip, but we have to relook at it this session,” Stanley said.

Stanley said legislators often don’t know the final dimensions of a bill because additional requirements are often added to the legislation as it passes from committee to committee.

That was the case with this bill. the Senate revisions of the bill call for the creation of four separate commissions to determine the feasibility of tamper- proof prescription forms, a post-treatment job training program for drug abusers, a jail diversion program for veterans convicted of non-violent substance abuse offenses and a education program for all middle school and high school students.

The law was updated to catch up with a national trend. In the early nineties, Massachusetts was one of the first states to monitor how doctors were prescribing Schedule II drugs, including amphetamines and opiates.

But Massachusetts fell behind the curve as other states began to monitor a more comprehensive list of drugs, including a class of anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax.

“National data and information from other states suggest that there is a growing problem for medication like benzodiazepines seen in combination with opiods,” said Dr. Alice Bonner, executive director with the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality. “Death rates are higher when they’re taken together.”

Several legislators, including Rep. Thomas Golden Jr., D-Lowell, Rep. Steven Walsh, D-Lynn, and Christopher Speranzo, D-Pittsfield took up the Department of Public Health’s initiative to expand the system.

“I started to receive phone calls from constituents who were experiencing problems with family members when it came to prescription drugs,” said Golden, who also heard about the problem from his pharmacist wife.

The new law, which some pharmacy chains are already following ahead of the Jan. 1 implementation date, requires reporting on all prescription drugs listed under federal drug Schedules III through V, which include scores of more commonly prescribed drugs.

The new law also speeds the reporting schedule – once a week vs. once a month – with the aim of turning up patients who are “doctor shopping” a term describing patients who seek prescriptions from multiple sources. The tighter monitoring is also meant to look for doctors who may be over prescribing.

All of the information is stored in a database overseen by The Department of Public Health whose job it is to filter the information and look for inconsistencies.

Margaret Clapp, chief of pharmacy at the Massachusetts General Hospital, says the new law triples to quadruples the amount of data collected by the state.

“For us it’s an add on,” said Clapp who doesn’t see any major complications with the expanded reporting requirements she says will allow doctors to “sniff people out” for instances of prescription abuse.

“Now we have a tool to help us,” she said.

Bonner says the new system will allow for a “very important conversation between the pharmacist and physician” to see a pattern of potential abuse.

But there are concerns about the expanded law. Pharmacists fear they will bear the brunt of consumer anger over the new procedures. Doctors wonder how they will use the system. Everyone has questions about privacy.

Clapp anticipates negative reactions from patients who are likely to learn of the law when they find they will need an ID to pick up their prescription at their local pharmacy.

“Fifty percent of patients show up without anything, a wallet etcetera,” Clapp said.  “I can see patients getting [angry].”

There are questions about how the database will be used. The health department sends reports to physicians and pharmacists about problem patients and pharmacists will be able to call physicians if they see that a patient has been visiting multiple doctors, or if a physician has been over-prescribing.

But none of this is mandatory. Doctors and pharmacists aren’t required to consult the database.

William Ryder, counsel for the Massachusetts Medical Society says it will be hard for medical practices to use the data.

“If the physicians themselves are the only ones allowed to do it and their staff can’t do it and it takes 40 minutes to find the data, then it’s not going to work,” Ryder said.

The medical association also is concerned about confidentiality, particularly if police can access the information. Ryder worries that patients who take medications for mental health issues are especially vulnerable in that regard.

“There has to be a balance there between looking at data and looking at individual data,” he said.

According the health department regulations access to the database will be limited to “authorized and authenticated individuals.” Law enforcement agencies will be able to request data involving a criminal investigation or prosecution. Such requests will be made to the attorney general, the state police or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Golden said federal health care privacy laws create a barrier against intrusion, but concedes there re no absolute guarantees.

“No electronic information is 100 percent safe,” he says.

Despite the questions, Golden sees the extended legislation as an important step that could save lives.

“It’s not going to solve the problem, but it will put a real dent in the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs,” he said.


Editors Note: This story was written by Sarah Favot and Caroline Hailey and reported by Favot, Hailey, Brittany Danielson, Shaunna Gately, Jason Marder, Kevin Schwartz and Sarah Tann.

Anti-Bully Law Goes into Effect with Criticism and Complaints

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

By Sarah Favot

BOSTON – After years of legislative wrangling it took a tragedy to get a tough new anti-bullying law approved on Beacon Hill this year.

But not all are happy with the law that was passed after the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince a South Hadley High School student bullied by classmates, made international headlines.

Some school principals say they must rewrite successful anti-bullying programs that were in effect before the Legislature passed the new law in May. Anti-bullying advocates say the law doesn’t go far enough. One legal expert warns that vague language could open the door to many cases that fall short of real bullying.

Sean Varano, a criminal justice professor at Roger Williams University says the law allows any student to file a complaint of bullying if he or she considers any kind of problem with a fellow student as emotionally harmful.

Varano said under the definition, a kindergartener telling a classmate she wouldn’t be invited to his birthday party could be charged with causing emotional harm.

“I believe that the legislation as written was a disaster,” Varano said in an interview. “The legislators created a Pandora’s Box and I don’t think they have any idea of the implications in schools.”

Massachusetts school districts had until Dec. 31 to file plans detailing how faculty and administrators will intervene in situations of bullying, how staff will be trained and how the schools will educate students on the dangers of bulling.

According to the Department of Education as of Sept. 29, 330 school districts, out of 394 have filed such plans.

Educators have mixed feelings about the new requirements

Barnstable High School Principal Patrick Clark says the law “forces everyone to think about the right questions,” but he echoes the complaints of other administrators who say their schools already had effective plans in place.

“Many of the schools were already three quarters of the way there,” Clark says. “I’m not sure if the state law was necessary.”

The Pittsfield District Schools implemented an internationally-recognized Olweus program last year.

The program, developed in Norway, requires adults in the school building to report and immediately handle incidents of bullying.

“We introduced Olweus to our staff last year before it [bullying] became such a big deal with the state,” said Christopher Jacoby, principal at Theodore Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield. “We feel confident that we were ahead of the curve.”

Principals like Jacoby say although they had already tackled the problem the law forced them to change reporting procedures.

The law requires adults working in the school building to report any suspected acts of bullying to the school principal, or a designee. It is up to the principal to investigate the situation, inform parents if bullying has occurred and keep a record of the incident to track patterns in student behavior.

Gus Sayer, superintendent of South Hadley School District, said his district had implemented its own program in February based on recommendations of an anti-bullying taskforce made up of parents, teachers, students and community leaders.

“When we’d get reports from kids, they were always investigated by the principals and then consequences were determined,” he said. “With the new procedures it is much more detailed how you will notify parents, what rights the bullies have, and what the plans will be for students.”

There are concerns the new law will put principals in a difficult role of tracking complaints and determining what constitutes bullying.

“What we’re going to see is that it’s going to take a lot of principals’ time,” said Colleen O’Brien, superintendent of Worcester District Schools. “They’ve been calling us, asking, What do you think about this – is this bullying?’ They’re being overly cautious.”

Jacoby said the Pittsfield district’s original plan made a clearer distinction between bulling and simple conflicts between students.

“Conflict is two kids who are at the same level of power and strength who are calling each other names and maybe shoving,” said Jacoby. “Bullying is where it’s a repeated act where someone enjoys a position of power over the other person.”

The law also requires that teachers receive formal training to detect and prevent bullying and that bullying education be incorporated into students’ curriculum. This has led to complaints about the costs of the new law.

O’Brien said that the Worcester School District received federal funding through the Safe and Drug-free Schools and Communities Act to implement research-based curriculum in grades four through six. Under the new law, Worcester schools have expanded the curriculum to kindergarten through grade six, but that money will soon run dry.

“This is an unfunded mandate,” O’Brien said of the new state law. “And I think schools will struggle.”

The new law comes after years of failed attempts in the Legislature to come up with anti-bullying legislation.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) said he’s been filing anti-bullying bills every session for the past few sessions, but that it took the tragedy of Prince’s suicide to push the bill through the Legislature.

“That’s what happens with legislation,” said Cabral. “Sometimes an incident of that magnitude highlights the seriousness and how it impacts kids and families and it brings the energy for us to get it done.”

Cabral said his bill had tougher standards, including fines for teachers and school staff members who do not reported an incident of bullying.

“Folks felt that we didn’t need to go that far,” Cabral said.

State Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton), who filed an anti-bullying bill in the Senate last session, said he had hoped the bill would raise understanding about targeted students such as gay, lesbian or transgendered.

“Studies have shown that particularly children who are gay, lesbian, transgendered are often targeted for being made fun of and I had hoped to highlight this fact and bring more awareness to it,” Eldridge said.

The law was an amalgamation of several bills filed by different legislators, including Cabral, Eldridge and Sen. Thomas P. Kennedy. Kennedy (D-Brockton) said this is a common practice.

“There is a certain process that legislation goes through, one particular bill has additions and modifications and going through committee process,” said Kennedy. “The end result is that we addressed a very serious and critical problem legislatively.”

But Varano, the Roger Williams criminologist, said incidents that should be treated as hate-crimes will merely be called bullying under the new law. Massachusetts law defines a hate crime is any criminal act motivated by bigotry or bias involving racial, religious, gender or sexual orientation.

“Hate crime in essence creates a protected classes of people,” said Varano. “If someone assaults you and says that was based on race, it criminalizes the behavior.”

Wendy Murphy, a professor at the New England School of Law is also concerned about what she says is its failure to differentiate between bullying and hate crimes.

“I fear that it’s going to mislead parents to mischaracterize civil rights violations as more trivial bullying. [The legislation] should make it clear that it could be civil rights harassment,” she said.

Murphy is thinks the law gives principals too much discretion. She said it would be better to have an outsider with no ties to the school oversee the bullying program.

“I worry a lot about the principals being the ultimate authority,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, they have the reputation of the school as a top priority and only the most honest principal would admit it.”

With the implementation of new procedures and policies this fall, most principals say it is too soon to tell whether the law is effective in preventing bullying.

“I’ve not seen any change in our school in terms of the number of incidents of bullying, no more and no less,” said Pittsfield’s Jacoby. “I expect there will be fewer instances of bullying, but it’s too soon to tell whether it’s having any impact.”

2 Westminster cops earn Hanna Awards

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

By Sarah FavotSentinel & Enterprise


BOSTON — Two Westminster police officers honored Thursday for their actions in a shootout with a suspect dedicated their award to their families who support them and worry about them when they are on duty.

Sgt. Edward Robbins and Officer Ralph LeBlanc, who have been partners for 15 years, were among 37 officers to receive medals of honor from Gov. Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Tim Murray at a Statehouse ceremony.

“I’m really proud that I was able to have my daughter come today,” said LeBlanc, who says his 7-year-old daughter, Cailey, worries about him every day he leaves the house. “She gives me hugs and kisses when I go off to work every day.”

Robbins and LeBlanc were honored for their actions during an incident in October 2009. The pair were checking out a report that an armed man had threatened his wife when the suspect opened fire on them. The man died from gunshot wounds to the leg when Robbins returned fire.

Both of the officers said their training prepared them for the dangerous incident.

“When you’re put in that situation, the training kicks in,” Robbins said. “We’re not happy that someone was killed, but we’re happy that we’re here. What needed to be done was done.”

The officers are reluctant to take on the hero’s mantel, saying their actions were just part of their duties.

“We were just doing the job,” Robbins said. “It’s what we do every day. We don’t need to come here to get an award. The award is more for my family.”

Westminster Police Chief Salvatore Albert, who attended the ceremony, said he is proud of Robbins and LeBlanc.

“Everything they did was textbook,” Albert said. “They did everything that they were supposed to do according to their training.”

Albert also described Robbins and LeBlanc as officers who love their job and are happy to come to work every day.

Speaking at the ceremony, Patrick and Murray noted the importance of the support that police officers have from their family members.

“I also want to acknowledge, in the same spirit of the lieutenant governor, the families of the honorees and families of all of those who serve in public-safety roles here in the commonwealth,” Patrick said. “You go into service every day with your loved ones. You worry about them and think about them. We appreciate and honor you and have you very much in mind, not just on the day of this ceremony, but every day.”

The 27th annual awards ceremony is held in honor of former state Trooper George L. Hanna Jr., who was killed during a routine motor-vehicle stop in 1983. Hanna’s daughters, Deborah Hanna and Kimberly Wittenberg, presented the awards along with Patrick and Murray.

DeLeo: Casino bill not a priority in January

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

By Sarah FavotThe Lowell Sun


BOSTON — The debate over casino gambling in Massachusetts continues, this time over whether the Legislature should take it up again when it convenes in January.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, has said that passing the gambling bill would not be his priority for the upcoming legislative session. He cited other issues, such as the budget deficit and health-care spending as more pressing issues to take up.

Two local state representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, don’t agree.

“I’m very surprised, given the issue of the day is jobs and ways to close the budget deficit,” said Marc Lombardo, a Republican from Billerica who won state Rep. Bill Greene’s open seat. “With the license revenues from casinos and thousands of jobs, I can’t understand why it would fall off.”

Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, said the estimated 15,000 jobs that proponents say the bill would create means that the issue shouldn’t be pushed aside, and he would urge the speaker to move the bill forward.

“It was on the goal line and it didn’t get done,” said Arciero. “Each branch has to resolve the issues that they have and it warrants the time that may take.”

The House and Senate sent a bill to the governor on the last day of session in July for three casinos and two slot-machine licenses, which would be open to competitive bid among the state’s four racetracks.

In early August, Gov. Deval Patrick returned the bill to the Legislature proposing three casinos, without the slot machines.

Other area representatives agree with DeLeo that other issues take precedence.

Rep. Charlie Murphy, D-Burlington, Houses Ways and Means chairman, agrees that health-care spending and the budget deficit are the biggest priorities for the Legislature.

“(The gambling bill) is not off the table, but there are other matters we need to address as well,” said Murphy.

Murphy’s priority is balancing the budget, which he said is under way, but he said it was too early to give details.

Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, thinks that it’s too late for revenues from the gambling bill to reduce the state’s budget deficit.

“Even if we do address (the gambling bill) in February or March, I don’t believe the time frame would help the $2 billion deficit for the next fiscal year,” said Nangle. “Had we passed it last summer, maybe we would have seen revenue coming in.”

But Nangle said the House needs to work on several major issues simultaneously and he hopes that the gambling bill will be one of them.

He predicts that some form of the bill will pass in 2011.

Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, said legislators need to figure out a new revenue stream, other than raising taxes.

“The voters spoke when they voted to eliminate the alcohol tax,” Murphy said. “They don’t want more taxes.”

For now, he said, the gambling bill is the only option for revenue that the Legislature has available. But he doesn’t think the bill is the answer for job creation.

“We’re not going to solve the job issue with the gambling bill,” he said. “We need to find other ways to create jobs.”

Greater Lowell companies must hire or payback aid

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

By Sarah FavotThe Lowell Sun


BOSTON — Four Greater Lowell companies have received more than $1 million from the state in exchange for job creation, but it’s still unclear if those companies will hold up their end of the bargain.

The aid was delivered through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to Zoll Medical Corp. in Chelmsford, Still River Systems Inc. in Littleton, Lightlab Imaging Inc. in Westford and InfraReDx Inc. in Burlington.

Center spokesman Angus McQuilken said the companies must meet their net job gains by the end of 2010 or they will have to repay the money.

Jeffrey Mazur, spokesman for InfraReDx, said the grant has helped with hiring this year. He said new hires may surpass the company’s commitment of 21 additional jobs.

“We’ve had normal turnover and no layoffs,” said Mazur. “Overall, I think the economy has been improving and we’ve been hiring new people.”

InfraReDx creates products to diagnose and treat heart disease. It employs 69 people at its Burlington headquarters. The jobs include engineering, manufacturing and administrative positions, Mazur said.

Zoll Medical, which manufactures noninvasive cardiac defibrillators and pacemakers that are used in emergency situations to resuscitate hearts, has had no layoffs since receiving the state grant in 2009. Spokeswoman Diane Egan said jobs have been created this year. She said she could not comment on whether the company will reach its goal of 20 added jobs.

Zoll employs nearly 800 people in manufacturing and administrative jobs at its Chelmsford headquarters.

Melanie Miller, spokeswoman for Still River Systems, which develops proton therapy for treating cancer, said the company has exceeded the hiring goals set by the grant for 2010, including more than the required 10 new hires. There have been no layoffs.

Still River Systems employs 86 full-time employees in Littleton in manufacturing, engineering and administration.

Lightlab Imaging, which creates high-resolution technology to detect cardiac conditions, has added 24 jobs to its full-time work force. To comply with the life-sciences grant, five more jobs need to be added by the end of the year.

“We’ve been adding a few jobs in the last months,” said Renny Clark, the company’s financial officer. “So we’re on track to get to the 29.”

Clark said the company has been adding full-time positions as well as temporary workers, including consultants. The company employs about 130 people in Westford, which include engineers, manufacturers and administrators.

Twenty-eight firms across the state received $25 million in 2009 from the Life Sciences Center.

Care Crisis in Lowell

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

By Sarah FavotThe Lowell Sun


BOSTON — Area lawmakers and health-care providers say the region is lacking in inpatient acute and long-term care beds for psychiatric patients when compared to what is available in the rest of the state.

The state Department of Mental Health funds 688 long-term inpatient psychiatric beds across the state in Tewksbury, Boston, Taunton, Pocasset, Fall River, Worcester and in western Massachusetts. The closest location to Lowell is at Tewksbury Hospital, where there are 130 beds.

The DMH licenses 2,357 acute-care psychiatric beds in private facilities and general hospitals throughout the state. The closest unit is at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, which has 47 adult beds.

Three years ago, state Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, and representatives from state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos’ office met with administrators from Lowell General Hospital and Saints Medical Center to talk about the need for inpatient beds in Lowell.

The DMH is in discussions with Arbour/Universal to create a 15-bed adult acute-care unit at Solomon Mental Health Center, returning beds to Lowell.

Solomon’s 16-bed inpatient facility closed in November 1996 due to state budget cuts, though it continues to offer emergency hospital psychiatric services for both adolescents and adults, according to Anna Chinappi, a DMH spokeswoman. Solomon, which opened in 1966 for in- and out-patient services, ended its regular outpatient services in June 2003 because of additional budget cuts.

Golden said a constituent whose daughter suffered from mental illness brought him into the mental-health community.

“I got into politics to help people who cannot help themselves, not people who won’t help themselves,” Golden said.

He sees the mental-health community as people who need to have advocates in the Legislature.

According to local health-care executives, there is a need for more.

Susan Lavallee, former director of emergency services at Saints Medical, said patients in crisis come to the Emergency Department where they sometimes wait more than 24 hours for treatment and placement in inpatient care.

“They’re getting no therapy,” Lavallee said. “We’re keeping them safe, fed and warm, but while they’re there, their crisis can escalate. It’s the worst place for them to be — the crying, the screaming, the commotion. It’s the last place where somebody in crisis needs to be.”

Lowell General Hospital’s Emergency Department sees an average of 212 patients with psychiatric needs each month, about 20 percent of the total patients the ER treats each month. Hospital spokeswoman Christine Scaplen said that of those 212, 88 need to be transferred to an acute inpatient bed.

State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said more needs to be done to find other places to go than emergency rooms.

“The most difficult part of it is the crisis part,” said Flanagan, who has a master’s degree in mental-health counseling. “Someone may go into the ER in crisis, hallucinating or suicidal, they may have been off their meds and they’re now facing ramifications. And they’re in the hospital waiting for a bed for days.”

Flanagan said the recent proposed elimination of 15 inpatient beds at HealthAlliance Hospital in Fitchburg — a satellite of UMass Memorial Healthcare in Worcester — is making the situation worse.

The elimination of the Fitchburg beds, planned for December, is pending a public hearing that is required by law when a hospital proposes to close “essential services.”

Tim O’Leary, deputy director of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, a nonprofit agency that promotes creation of mental-health services, said in an interview that there is more of a problem than a lack of inpatient beds.

“Private psychiatric hospitals say that once a patient no longer requires acute care, they should move into another setting, a long-term state hospital or partial hospitalization program, but there is not enough of them,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said patients wind up occupying acute-care beds although they no longer need acute care.

“Our system is stuck,” he said.

One of the recommendations from a report commissioned by Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, was to decrease the number of inpatient beds at Tewksbury Hospital. The report said the operation of the psychiatric inpatient unit is limiting and stigmatizing toward patients, the study found.

Representatives from Tewksbury Hospital didn’t respond to requests for comment on the study.

The study found that beds across the state were at 97 percent capacity in 2009. But the commission recommended the speedy closure of Westboro State Hospital’s 120 beds, although a new public mental-health hospital in Worcester, which would take up the slack, will not be completed until 2012.

Some other recommendations by the commission focus on improving community care and monitoring the transfer of patients from inpatient to a community setting. The commission recommends to “maximize diversions from inpatient units and emergency departments and to minimize lengths of stay in acute and on-going settings.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts, a nonprofit advocacy organization for mental illness, has grave concerns regarding the lack of inpatient psychiatric beds and the Department of Mental Health’s focus on community groups.

“Ideally, we want everyone to be in the community, but not everyone is ready to be in the community,” alliance Executive Director Laurie Martinelli said. “We still want community programs, but a robust system needs to have both options available.”

Albert Scott, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell, the services of which do not include inpatient care, said the shortage of inpatient services results from financial constraints.

“There are some financial difficulties for agencies to maintain clinics, as well as maintaining psychiatrists on staff,” Scott said. “It relates to the rate of reimbursement for service. Rates have been frozen for years, which makes it difficult to run a financially balanced program.”

Lowell General closed its 34-inpatient psychiatric beds in 2002 because of a reduction of state funding and a $3 million annual loss.

Dr. A. James Lee, an associate professor at UMass Lowell, was the lead author of a report released last month commissioned for Lowell General, Saints Medical and Greater Lowell Health Alliance that examined local public-health needs. One of the major findings was the lack of access to mental-health services in the area.

“Mental health was the number-one issue in all of our conversations,” Lee said. “Between focus groups and in-person interviews, we talked to more than 50 people in the area, and almost invariably, the conversation began with mental-health services seen as a desperate shortage.”

The report, drawing on Department of Public Health data, said the number of mental-health hospitalizations in Lowell in 2006 was about the same as the rate across the state, at 3,676 people per 100,000 people. However, there aren’t inpatient beds for those patients, and they’re left waiting in emergency departments to be placed in a facility.

“We stand in a horrible place,” said Lavallee, the former Saints ER director. “We are unique as a community because we have a lack of inpatient resources compared to the rest of the state.”

Evergreen Solar: Talks of jobs moving to China is premature

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

By Sarah FavotThe Lowell Sun


BOSTON — Officials at Devens’ largest employer say that reports of jobs already moving to China are erroneous.

“We haven’t moved one job from Devens,” Chris Lawson, a spokesman for Evergreen Solar Inc., said in an interview. “There have been erroneous reports that we have started to move jobs overseas, which is not the case.”

Evergreen employs about 900 people at its manufacturing operations in Devens and corporate offices in Marlboro.

The company, which makes solar panels using proprietary silicon wafer technology, opened its Devens solar-panel manufacturing facilities in July 2008 with $20.7 million in cash grants from the state, including money from MassDevelopment, the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust and a Workforce Training Fund. Total construction costs for the plant were $430 million, according to Lawson.

About a year ago, the company created a media uproar — and upset state officials — when it announced it would open a plant in China and eliminate manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts, citing costs.

Ian Bowles, state secretary of Energy and Environment, said at the time that he was disappointed that Evergreen would be moving part of its business to China.

But Lawson said the jobs that Evergreen said would be going to China haven’t and, more importantly, there are no immediate plans to reduce its Massachusetts work force. That’s the case even though Evergreen successfully opened its new plant in Wuhan, China, in September, he said.

In fact, during last week’s quarterly conference call with reporters and industry analysts, Evergreen CEO Michael El-Hillow said Devens “continues to improve its cost structure” and the company is able to command a price premium for its panels because “not only are we an American company, but we just have a better panel.”

At least one state official said the company has plenty of breathing room in terms of meeting state requirements for continued grant funding.

According to Robert Keough, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, Evergreen is required to maintain the 310 jobs that were in Massachusetts before the Devens facilities were constructed, as well as maintain 350 jobs that were created as a result of the Devens operations, for a total 660 jobs.

“According to Mass. employment records, they employ over 900, which is well above the commitment that they have made to job creation and retention in receiving money from the state,” Keough said. “They’ve made commitments to the state that they intend to live up to that pledge.”

Lawson said cuts have not been made locally because the company is selling above its manufacturing costs at the Devens plant.

“We’re watching our manufacturing costs, selling prices and cash costs,” Lawson said. “But no one can predict where the market is going.”

Last week, Evergreen reported record shipments of 42.6 megawatts of production — all from Devens. That’s up 7.2 percent from the 39.8 megawatts shipped the quarter before. The company produced 3.4 megawatts from the new Wuhan plant, but did not recognize that revenue because it had not yet gone to market.

Also, third-quarter revenues were $86.5 million, up 14 percent from the $74.5 million recorded in the comparable year-ago quarter.

Evergreen shaved its quarterly net loss by a third, from $82.7 million (40 cents a share) in the third quarter of 2009 to $27.2 million (13 cents a share) this past quarter.

Evergreen officials say the company has $93 million in cash on hand.

The Alliance For American Manufacturing, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan partnership of American manufacturers, said more needs to be done to replicate the situation at Evergreen Solar.

The alliance’s executive director, Scott Paul, said in a statement: “Aggressive steps from Congress and the Obama administration are needed to make sure that the U.S. becomes the world leader in clean-energy manufacturing. The opportunities for American manufacturers and workers are great, but the challenges are significant. If not addressed properly, the U.S. will replace dependence on foreign oil with dependence on imported renewable goods from China and other competitors.”

A report released earlier this year by the Economic Policy Institute said that since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. has lost 2.4 million jobs.

Shares of Evergreen closed yesterday at 93 cents apiece, down 9 cents, in Nasdaq trading. Shares have declined 38 percent since the start of this year.

Baker Election Night

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

By Sarah Favot

BOSTON – Chiding disappointed supporters that “he won fair and square,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker conceded the election to Gov. Deval Patrick Tuesday night after trailing Patrick 42 percent to 48 percent of the vote.

“We fought the good fight,” a smiling Baker said as his family and his running mate state Sen. Richard Tisei stood by his side.. “It’s important that all of us get behind the governor and make sure he succeeds in getting our economy out of the doldrums.”

The crowd, estimated by security at 1,500 people, responded with yells of “we want Charlie.” The celebratory red, white and blue balloons remained suspended from the ceiling in nets, a symbol of the celebration the crowd of supporters didn’t get to see.

Although Baker said he thought he ran his campaign with the biggest sense of humor of his opponents, he said he they always had his respect.

“While we certainly had disagreements over policy, I never thought for a moment that any of them didn’t have the interests of the people of the commonwealth at heart,” said Baker. “Each of them deserves our respect tonight.”

Former Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling and comedian Lenny Clarke were among the celebrities e on stage during the evening. A teaser announcement was made that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would make appearances, but they never showed.

The evening started with good news for the gathered Republicans as results came in throughout the night showing Republicans taking control of seats in Congress.

David D’Arcangelo, a former aide to Baker’s running mate, state Sen. Richard Tisei, said that he was “ecstatic” with the Republican gains across the country and hopeful about Massachusetts.

“It would be disappointing if across the country there is a Republican wave and we buck the trend here in Massachusetts,” said D’Arcangelo.

The mood earlier in the night was a confident hope of a changing of the guard on Beacon Hill.

Patrick Mattuchio, wearing a Baker/Tisei pin on his hat, said that he thought voters have had enough of Democratic control on Beacon Hill.

Ad Slams Baker For His Time at Harvard Pilgrim

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Ad Watch – “Ever Wonder”
Ad Slams Baker For His Time at Harvard Pilgrim

By Sarah Favot

Editor’s Note: As Election Day approaches the frequency of political ads is increasing along with the shrillness of tone. Boston University’s Statehouse Program offers this analysis of an ad being aired in support of Gov. Deval Patrick’s re-election campaign

Ad Title: Ever Wonder?
SPONSOR: Massachusetts Teachers Association. In the past three months, the association has spent over $2.7 million on television and Internet advertisements for Patrick, according to campaign finance records
PREMISE: Massachusetts can’t afford Republican Charlie Baker because he goes to expensive dinner parties and doesn’t think about you. As the head of health insurance company Harvard Pilgrim, Baker increased his salary while raising premiums for customers.
The ad, running regularly on local stations, is set a restaurant with men and women in suits toasting each other over glasses of wine. One of the men bears a resemblance to Baker. The suggestion of the visual and narration is that Baker hangs with a crowd of extravagant diners and can’t be bothered with ordinary people.
TEXT: “Ever wonder what health insurance CEO Charlie Baker talks about at his fancy meetings? Maybe how he cut hundreds of jobs and raised health insurance premiums, all while quadrupling his salary.”
– Baker’s $1.7 million salary in 2008.
Baker’s salary was comparable to other health insurance CEO’s in the state. In 2008, James Roosevelt Jr., CEO at Tufts Health Plan, earned $1.06 million, according to spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan. At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, about three times the size of Harvard Pilgrim, CEO Cleve Killingsworth earned $1.9 million in 2009 according to spokesman Jay McQuaide. In 2008, Killingsworth earned $3.5 million, much higher than Baker’s compensation.
Hospital executives earned in the same range as Baker and his colleagues. According to data from the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, the average hospital CEO salary is $1.6 million.
– Baker increased health insurance premiums
Health care premiums did increase during Baker’s time at Harvard Pilgrim. So did the premiums at the state’s other major plans.
Harvard Pilgrim spokeswoman Sharon Torgerson said that premiums have risen on average of 10 percent per member each year since 2003.
Blue Cross Blue Shield’s rate payers have seen premiums rise by double digits each year since 2004, according to McQuaide.
“It’s not unique to Harvard Pilgrim, Charlie Baker or Massachusetts,” McQuaide said. “It speaks to a health care problem across the country.”
Since 2000, health insurance premium rates have grown at a faster pace in Massachusetts than the rest of the country. According to data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, premiums for Massachusetts have risen 7.5 percent each year. Nationally rates have gone up 6.5 percent.
Eric Linzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said that the increasing cost of health care and health insurance is happening across the industry.
“Increasing costs in the health care industry are causing increasing premium rates,” said Linzer.
There may be another explanation about the higher rate of increase for Massachusetts health plans. According to a 2009/2010 U.S. News report, Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts rank in the top 3 of commercial health insurance plans across the country. Rank is based on customer satisfaction and success in preventing and treating illness.
Baker responded to the ad with this statement:
“Gov. Patrick has been the CEO of the health care system in Massachusetts for the last four years, approving every single rate increase, while ignoring bipartisan reform proposals from leaders like Charlie Baker. Charlie has been advocating reforms to the health care system for the past six years and it’s unfortunate that Gov. Patrick has ignored the proposals and has politicized the health care system. ”
But Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association, said it is Baker who has politicized the health care issue by touting his tenure at Harvard Pilgrim to show that he is the best candidate for governor.
“We’re suggesting that he didn’t do a good job of keeping costs down,” said Toner. “While Gov. Patrick last year told insurance companies that he wouldn’t tolerate any more increases.”

Who pays for the ride?

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Ambulance firms, insurers tussle over unnegotiated fees

By Sarah FavotThe Lowell Sun


BOSTON — The problem, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield, was obvious. A Lowell-based ambulance company charged $4,415 for a ride from Lowell General Hospital to Tufts Medical Center in Boston. If the company had a contract with the insurer, the charge would have been $1,184.

The case illustrates a debate now swirling on Beacon Hill over a provision tucked into a supplementary spending bill that would require insurers to send unnegotiated payments for ambulance services directly to the companies. Ambulance companies want the provision so they won’t have to chase down patients for payments. Insurers don’t want it; they say it would make it easier for ambulance companies to remain outside insurance networks and charge higher fees.

The Legislature passed a spending bill on Tuesday that includes the provision that changes the current system that permits insurers to send the payments for ambulance services to patients, who then pay ambulance companies.

However, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to send the bill back to the Legislature with an amendment to this section.

“The administration has concerns relative to the impact of the provision on health-care costs and will be sending that section back to the Legislature with an amendment that addresses those concerns,” said Kyle Sullivan, a Patrick spokesman.

The governor’s actions come amid reports that local ambulance company owners have been making donations to local lawmakers and the governor.

John Chemaly of Trinity EMS in Lowell, David Daly of PrideSTAR EMS in Lowell, and Nick Melehov of Medstar in Leominster each gave Patrick $500 in September. David Walton, of Patriot Ambulance in Chelmsford, donated $150 to Patrick last month.Chemaly and Daly have been frequent supporters of state Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, each donating more than $2,000 since 2002. Golden sponsored a bill in the last session that contained similar language to the provision approved in this week’s bill, but the bill died in the Senate. 

“The amendment has financial implications and that’s why it is in the spending bill,” Golden said in an interview.

Trinity EMS was the company that transported the Lowell patient to Boston for $4,451. Chris Dick, the company’s director of marketing, said that case was unusual.

“There was a nurse on board, paramedics and an IV was running. It was an advanced-life-support, extreme circumstance,” he said. Dick said federal patient-privacy regulations prevented him from commenting further.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts spokeswoman Tara Murray said the provision in the supplementary bill would cost the insurance company $60 million — an expense that would be passed on to ratepayers, including businesses that provide insurance coverage for employees.

The provision would eliminate an incentive for ambulance companies to join their network and negotiate fees at reasonable rates, Murray said.

Insurers announced two months ago that ambulance companies outside the provider network would have to pursue patients for their payments. Murray said Blue Cross has found that this system has been an incentive for providers to go under contract with the insurer.

“This is new for ambulance providers, but it is not new in the industry,” said Murray.

But ambulance-service operations, including those operated by local fire departments, say they can’t always rely on patients to forward the payments.

“Especially in tough economic times, when a patient receives payment from insurance for the ambulance company, they can choose whether they want to take that money and pay a different bill,” said Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield, whose department oversees ambulance services in the town.

Daly, president and CEO of PrideSTAR, said the proposed change under scrutiny by Patrick is crucial to his industry.

“There would be significant layoffs across the industry, really significant ramifications throughout Massachusetts,” he said.

He said ambulance companies met last fall with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts to negotiate service fees, but the insurer broke off talks before coming to an agreement.

“It’s too bad because we were close to coming to an agreement,” said Daly.

But Daly said the proposed law could still lead to an agreement between ambulance companies and insurers.

“This still allows Blue Cross to negotiate with individual ambulance companies,” said Daly. “But in the meantime, they have to pay us.”

Golden questions Blue Cross’ claims that his amendment would cost the insurer up to $60 million.

“We’re not changing the way things are happening,” he said. “The only thing we’re doing is keeping the playing field as it is and not allowing the insurers to shift costs to municipalities” and consumers.

State Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, said that while the provision isn’t perfect, he doesn’t want cities and towns to foot unpaid bills.

“My concern is that cities and towns would not get part of the reimbursement for ambulance costs, putting more pressures on towns’ and cities’ budgets,” said Eldridge.

But Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, said the legislation gives too much freedom to ambulance companies.

“This exempts ambulances from negotiation and allows them to charge whatever they want,” said Widmer, who joined with business associations and health insurers to send a letter to Patrick urging him to veto the amendment. “It’s all of us who pay; it’s a hidden cost that is imbedded in the system.”

Similar legislation requiring insurers to send unnegotiated payments directly to ambulance companies has been passed in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana and Texas with bills pending in New York and Maryland.