State House News Service

State House Roundup: Outrage

BOSTON — Maddening, desperate questions and demands rang from the lips of the state’s most powerful this week, as blankets of snow and one family’s misery weighed on Massachusetts.

Where is Jeremiah? “Find that child.”

Five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver had no one looking out for him, save his 7-year-old sister who on Dec. 2 told school authorities of the abuse allegedly rained down on the family by her mother’s 22-year-old boyfriend.

Unseen since September, though the Department of Children and Families had officially supervised the troubled family for two years, Jeremiah was feared dead when officials kicked into action, charging the mother and her boyfriend with criminal offenses and firing the caseworker and her supervisor.

“My job is to get the facts, to control my outrage and direct it to where the responsibility lies,” Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters soon after arriving home from a visit to Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

So it was that a boy from Fitchburg became the focus of state officials, humbled by the government’s failure to keep watch on a family that had been assigned a social worker because of accusations of neglect.

“The question how could this happen is one I’m asking too, because the initial answers were so lacking the social worker and social worker’s supervisor were both fired,” said Patrick during an interview with reporters where he said “no” he does not feel partially responsible and affirmed that the proverbial buck “always stops with me.”

While authorities search for the boy, another search commenced for the reasons why a five-year-old supposedly under the watch of DCF could go missing for three months without the state agency knowing.

The second search for solutions has already featured recriminations and expressions of disappointment from Patrick and the much aggrieved social workers union, SEIU 509, which said caseloads have “long stood at crisis levels” and accused DCF Commissioner Olga Roche of “finger-pointing.”

Legislative committees have already been tasked by Speaker Robert DeLeo to investigate the entire department, a review that could take place amid the annual budget process.

During the shock and angst over Jeremiah, an independent investigation into the murder of Jennifer Martel concluded Middlesex prosecutors had erred in asking for Jared Remy’s release on a domestic violence charge with “only bail warnings and no other abuse order” shortly before he allegedly murdered his girlfriend Martel last summer.

DeLeo had previously said he wanted to review the state’s domestic violence laws.

The legislative process ran on holiday speed this past week, though three new outside commissions were hard at work as the Gaming Commission evaluated casino magnate Steve Wynn’s “suitability” to build in Everett, a commission wrestled with the logistics of hosting the summer Olympics in Greater Boston, and the Health Policy Commission assayed a proposed health care merger.

On Thursday, news arrived that the state’s unemployment rate is higher than the national rate for the first time since May 2007 – the good old days when a 4.5 percent rate was enough to put the Commonwealth above the national rate. Interpretations differed: the national economy had caught up to Massachusetts, which has been adding jobs by the way, or the state is falling behind, freighted down by a packet of taxes, unemployment insurance rules, and burdensome regulations. Florida’s down to 6.4 percent. Not bad, especially from the Massachusetts vantage at 7.1 percent.

State regulators had a tougher nut to crack on Wednesday. The Healthy Policy Commission was officially reminded by its own report that the state’s health care industry has higher per capita spending than any other state. With that cost trend report as a backdrop, commissioners discussed a plan by Partners to absorb two South Shore medical organizations.

Partners HealthCare System is not merely the largest provider of health care in the state; it is also the largest private employer in Massachusetts with 60,000 employees. The largest public employer in Massachusetts is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has about 90,000 positions.

One of the state’s newest entities is the Health Policy Commission, created about a year ago by the 2012 law aimed at reducing cost growth in health care.

On Wednesday, the HPC presented its case for why Partners’ proposed acquisition of South Shore Hospital and the 65-member physician group Harbor Medical Associates should be referred to Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Partners’ professed desire for a more “integrated health system” ran up against a panel of regulators concerned about the health giant growing larger, giving it even greater clout in negotiating prices with the state’s insurers. The top three would see health expenditures increase by $23 to $26 million, the HPC concluded, though the report has yet to be finalized and Partners can provide written commentary on it.

HPC Director of Policy for Market Performance Karen Tseng led commissioners and the audience in the Gardner Auditorium through the methodology of its review into the implications of such a merger when just before the unanimous vote to approve the document, Commissioner Dr. Paul Hattis, a Coakley appointee and consumer advocate, left his seat and stood to face his fellow commissioners.

“I want to look in everybody’s eyes because I can see your souls,” Hattis said, before dispensing some of his world wisdom and advice for the health care executives.

“The Partners folks I’ve gotten to know pretty well, and they’re all incredibly intelligent, highly skilled, driven by sound values, and from what I’ve known from them, people trying to do good. The problem, though, is like all humans, that intelligence and good values is useful in spotting and noting faults and errors in others – not so good in spotting the errors and faults in their own organizations,” said Hattis, theorizing that Partners executives are “under incredible pressure” from constituencies that may be “self-serving in their world-view.”

This is mostly uncharted territory for the commission, this whole business of regulating business decisions of the state’s largest private employer, a non-profit, in an industry, health care, that has been the biggest driver for much of government and some private enterprise. Partners also owns some of the Boston hospitals – MGH, Brigham and Women’s – that are a source of pride for Bay Staters discussing the quality of Massachusetts medical care.

Waiting in the wings, perhaps, are Justice Department lawyers and assistant attorneys general, seeking to determine whether Partners’ size and business plan have led it afoul of anti-trust laws.

The Commonwealth has tried the tightly groomed style of managing the health care industry, and the state has tried allowing the industry to mind its own costs and growth. Now here comes the HPC back into the health care jungle to blaze a new path where publicly available reports, a stated goal of reducing overall spending growth and potential moves by the attorney general are the levers to tamp down costs.

Setting their own course, the appointees to the Special Commission to Study the Feasibility of Hosting the Summer Olympics in the Commonwealth in 2024 have been playing with the various puzzle pieces that would need to fall in place for the idea to move forward: Move the postal facility out of the way of South Station’s expansion, build temporary housing for 16,000, and then convince enough people that the idea is a win. Actually bringing all that to fruition would require a Jesse Owens-like feat of engineering and politicking. For a city that has seen trophies and cups hoisted by jubilant champions in football, baseball, basketball and hockey over the past decade, gold medals would be novel.

It’s looking like the synchronized swimmers and Greco Roman wrestlers might have a place north of town to unwind with a game of black jack or a few tries on the roulette wheel. Steve Wynn was before the Gaming Commission this week waxing rhetoric on the importance of “fun” in choosing between his plans for a resort casino in Everett and his new rival Mohegan Sun’s plans for a resort casino in Revere. Wynn later regaled reporters about his family’s Revere roots and the twist of fate that resulted in his New Haven, Conn. birth. War happened and Wynn’s father was assigned to Marlin Firearms, he said.

The House always comes out on top, as they say, but casino opponents in Revere – who may have thought the Suffolk Downs project was killed by East Boston voting it down – will have another shot at it when Mohegan Sun holds a vote on its Revere-only proposal. The new plan to redevelop only the Revere part of Suffolk Downs will require a “church-state” separation between the horse track, largely in East Boston, and the resort. So no matter who comes out on top in the high-stakes casino selection process, it’s clear that the dressage jockeys of 2024 will not be afforded a carpeted stroll from the poker room to the horse track.

Pols rival athletes in their competitive drive, and on Thursday, with little else to debate, the action was in Hearing Room A-1, where the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight heard the musical merits of Roadrunner and Dream On, which are both in the running for official state rock song.

Well, they weren’t actually listening to recordings of the songs. Justice is blind, and the committee process was deaf to the crooning of Jonathan Richman and the delivery of a young Steven Tyler.

Roadrunner is the favorite over the Aersomith classic, having the backing of Rep. Marty Walsh, soon to be Mayor Marty Walsh, though the flag was carried more on social media than in the hearing room. The winner, which would need to clear both branches and skate past the governor’s veto pen, would join cranberry juice, the Boston cream donut and Roxbury puddingstone, bound in Chapter 2 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

While the cod remains the official fish, the state Patrick returned to was changed in other ways, as the renovations to the Executive Suite commenced last week, meaning the governor and his senior staff are now cooped up in a second floor office and conducting press availabilities in ad hoc locations rather than the tried-and-true carpet in front of his third-floor office.

On Thursday word arrived that President Barack Obama had commuted the sentence of Patrick’s cousin, Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., who had been serving a life sentence for dealing crack cocaine. Congress changed the sentencing laws to lessen the penalties for crack, aligning them more with the penalties for powder cocaine, but some prisoners remained imprisoned, their sentences having been ordered in an earlier era.

On the radio, Friday, Patrick said he did not know about the commutation and did not know Wintersmith, who he said grew up under different circumstances than he had.

“I had the great blessing of having strong adults in the house and strong adults elsewhere, in school, in church,” Patrick said.

Patrick said he was aware of Wintersmith but did not know he was imprisoned until another cousin contacted him earlier this week about a public appeal Wintersmith made through the ACLU.

Patrick has sought sentencing reforms within Massachusetts, and legislative leaders have said they would work on that issue in the current legislative session.

Meanwhile, there are other matters occupying the Legislature’s attention, including three bills being finalized in conference committee. Among them is a reform of the state’s oversight of compounding pharmacies that was drafted in response to the Board of Registration in Pharmacy’s failure of oversight at the New England Compounding Center, whose fungus-tainted injectable steroids have killed 64 people since last year’s meningitis outbreak.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Department of Children and Families was supposed to and did not keep track of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, who is now missing and feared dead, sparking a search for the child and for answers.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “When they mess up, then the hammer’s going to have to come down.” – Gov. Deval Patrick discussing the Oliver case and the DCF.

SONGS OF THE WEEK: “All Hail to Massachusetts”, words and music by Arthur J. Marsh, the official song of the Commonwealth; and the official folk song of the Commonwealth, “Massachusetts”, words and music by Arlo Guthrie.

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