News & Events

Advocates for the Retarded Take Fight to Save Fernald Center to the Senate and Present Cost Study Showing that No Savings are Realized When State Facilities are Closed

BOSTON — The fight to save The Fernald Center and other remaining state facilities for the mentally retarded from closure moved into a new phase Wednesday as advocates took their case for the facilities to the state Senate.

In a news conference in the ornate Senate Reading Room, the Coalition of Families and Advocates for the Retarded (COFAR) handed lawmakers and aides copies of a newly published cost study that challenges the widely held view that community-based care for the retarded is less expensive than institutional care.

The Statehouse event, which was hosted jointly be COFAR and State Reps. Brad Hill (R-Boxford) and Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), was held as the Senate Ways and Means Committee released its Fiscal Year 2004 budget plan, which contained language protecting the state facilities from closure. The language, which was inserted in the Senate budget bill by Sen. Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln), was similar to that approved by the House last month. It would require that a cost-benefit analysis be done before the doors to the facilities could be shut and their residents transferred to other locations. It also requires that no resident be moved out of Fernald to a community setting unless and until that resident is guaranteed the equal or better care and the cost of that care is the same or less than that provided by the state facility.

Currently, there are no community residences in Massachusetts that can provide the same level of care for the severely mentally retarded as is provided at state-of-the art facilities like The Fernald Center. And, as the study shared with the Senate makes clear, there is no way to provide that level of care at a lower cost.

During Wednesday’s news conference, state Rep. Angelo Scaccia (D-Boston) urged some 40 COFAR volunteers in attendance to keep up their lobbying pressure at the Statehouse.

"You folks have been victorious because you have a passion for your family members (who live in the state facilities)," Scaccia said. "You’ll win this one too. But you have to stay in there. You have to work at it."

The COFAR members spent the remainder of the afternoon on Wednesday delivering copies of the cost study on institutional versus community-based care to lawmakers’ offices and talking to the legislators or their aides about supporting of the facility-protection language in the budget.

During Wednesday’s news conference, several speakers stressed the importance of the cost study which was published this month in the prestigious journal Mental Retardation. The review of more than 250 studies done over the past quarter century concludes that many of those studies, which showed budgetary savings in community-based care, failed to control for a wide range of variables. Those variables include geography, staffing levels, and the severity of the mental retardation of the groups being compared. Studies that did control more accurately for those variables did not report savings in the cost of care in the community.

"Year after year, all we hear is that it’s more expensive to keep people in the state facilities," said Larry Harding, a COFAR board member. "This cost study punches a hole in that myth."

Mark Booher, a COFAR member and a licensed psychologist, noted that the literature review itself had been peer reviewed and had limited its analysis to studies that had followed strict standards of scholarship.

COFAR President Thomas Frain said he felt the cost review confirmed his long-held view that the cost of care rises and falls with the level of disability of the person in question. "Most retarded people are alone. Elected officials are what stand between suffering and isolation on the one hand and the very best care on the other."

Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham), who led the effort in the House to insert the facility-protection language in the budget bill, maintained that the administration has committed a "rush to judgment" in targeting the state facilities for closure. Not only have the administration’s savings projections in closing Fernald been cut in half in recent weeks, but the administration has yet to provide any financial details backing up those projections, Stanley said. He said he has continued to request those details from the Department of Mental Retardation.

Rep. Carol Donovan (D-Reading) told the group that while she believes community-based care is the best alternative for those whose mental retardation is not severe, she also believes the majority of the residents of the state facilities would not be likely to receive adequate service in the community. "I will do whatever I can to keep these institutions open," she said.

Sen. Tarr thanked the COFAR volunteers for attending Wednesday’s event. "We will have to make some difficult decisions," he said. "Your being here will make a difference."