MANSFIELD, Mass. — Advocates for the Fernald Developmental Center and other state facilities for the mentally retarded vowed today to continue their campaign to save the facilities, despite a veto by Governor Mitt Romney of language in the current-year state budget that would protect them from summary closure.
"We think we have a great chance of an override in the Legislature," said Thomas Frain, President of the Coalition of Families and Advocates for the Retarded (COFAR), which had been lobbying at the State House since April in support of the facilities.
"It’s a shame that the governor has continued to target these facilities, which provide such vital services for some of the most vulnerable citizens of our state," Frain continued. "We know what the real reason is, of course. It’s a land grab and a bonanza for certain private service vendors."
Frain noted that the governor’s veto came less than a week after COFAR delivered a final set of petitions to Romney’s office, containing signatures collected from more than 14,000 people across the state, who oppose the facility closures. Romney also never responded to several invitations from COFAR, and one from State Senator Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln) and other legislators, to visit Fernald before making a final decision on its closure.
Compounding the problems that will be caused by the closures of the state facilities, the governor Monday also vetoed some $3,334,000 in funding earmarked by the Legislature for a wide range of community-based programs for the retarded. Frain noted that in failing to adequately fund community programs, the administration is "setting the stage for a major crisis when and if they start transferring hundreds of state facility residents into community residences. It won’t be just a quality-of-care issue. There will be no place to put them. There will be a huge increase in regressive behaviors and even deaths."
The governor’s state-facility veto concerned budget language approved late last month by the House and Senate, which would require that a cost-benefit analysis be done before either Fernald or the other state facilities could be shut down. That language would also require that the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) determine that any residents transferred from those facilities would receive equal or better care in any community-based setting to which they are sent.
The budget language also specifically precluded the shutdown of Fernald before October 2004 in order to ensure community, client, and family member input into the closure planning process. It also would require that the DMR report on the steps taken to minimize increases in travel distances for family members visiting residents who have been transferred from one facility to another.
"This language was completely reasonable and moderate—providing certain conditions and a humane time-frame before closure could be considered," said Colleen Lutkevich, COFAR’s Executive Director.
In addition to vetoing the facility protection language, the governor reduced funding to the state facilities in the current fiscal year by more than $698,000.
The governor first announced in February that he was targeting Fernald and potentially five other remaining state facilities for the retarded in Massachusetts for closure as a budget-cutting measure. The administration, however, has never provided backup figures for what have turned out to be declining savings projections in closing Fernald. The administration first projected a $4 million savings in closing Fernald, and later revised that projection to $2.3 million. COFAR contends the closures will put the entire continuum of care for the retarded in Massachusetts at risk, without saving the state money.
A significant portion of the 309 residents of the Fernald Center are among the most severely and profoundly retarded in the state, many are elderly, and many have acute medical needs. Fernald and the other state facilities currently provide state-of-the-art care for those residents. That intensive level of care is not currently available anywhere in the community-based system, according to Lutkevich.
Lutkevich noted that COFAR and other advocacy organizations have offered to work with the administration to find other, compatible uses for the 187 acres of land at the Fernald site. In addition to the Fernald Center, a number of other facilities on the grounds would be closed under the administration’s plan, including a skilled nursing facility for 27 people with mental retardation, two state-operated group homes housing 12 people, and a shelter for homeless women. In addition, the Shriver Center, which provides medical services to the Fernald residents and a Tufts dental clinic would be evicted.
Since the Governor announced his intention to close the facilities, COFAR volunteers have made at least three visits to the State House to lobby for the facility protection legislation and to deliver petitions to the Governor’s office. Last week’s visit included the delivery of final petition signatures to the offices of both Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Thomas Finneran.