The State Senate and House has moved to increase statewide, publicly-available data as it relates to the coronavirus. The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, aims to promote equity and transparency as Massachusetts confronts the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill also establishes a task force to study and recommend policy to address health disparities for underserved and underrepresented communities during the pandemic. After receiving favorable votes in the Senate and House, the bill has advanced to the governor’s desk.
“Dr. Fauci reminds us that to fight the pandemic we have to follow the science,” said State Senator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington). “Science depends on good, rigorous data. In passing this bill, better data to guide decisions is what we’re driving at.”
Under the bill, the state Department of Public Health is required to compile, collect, and issue daily online reports on the number of people tested for COVID-19. Data collection reports will include all positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths along with the gender, race, ethnicity, primary residence, occupation, disability, age, and primary language of each case.
The legislation also requires that daily reports include data and demographic information from municipalities and counties with more than 25 positive cases.
Importantly, the bill contains provisions to ensure more information from elder care facilities. “The situation in elder care facilities is catastrophic,” said Barrett. “We need all the information we can get.”
Sen. Barrett, who has called for more information from state and county correctional facilities, says the bill advances the issue in that respect, too. Under the new legislation, the state’s Department of Public Health must also publish daily updates on the number of COVID-19 positive cases and mortalities among individuals who are incarcerated. The department will also be required to publish on its website, for each state and county correctional facility, the total number of residents per correctional facility; and the number of residents within each facility who are housed in a cell either alone or with another person.
In addition to requiring greater data collection, the bill requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to describe the actions it is taking to address disparities identified through the data collected.
In response to increasing concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and disproportionately impacted populations, the legislation also establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations for how to address these health disparities. The task force is required to issue an interim report by June 30, 2020, with a final report due August 1, 2020.
“A year ago, the survival of the Field Station was in doubt,” said state Sen. Mike Barrett in a statement. “The nonprofit tenants, all involved with heathy eating, sustainable local agriculture, and what you might call food justice, faced eviction. But the Greater Waltham community rallied. Residents demanded that the farm be preserved and the tenants be protected.
“Thanks to the Mayor, the City Council, and the tenants for working together, we took a giant stride forward,” he added.
Rep. John Lawn, Barrett, and Rep. Thomas Stanley will be guides for the legislation to move through the state House and Senate.
“What remains, importantly, is passage of some enabling legislation,” Barrett said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Rep. Lawn to get that final piece done.”
Lexington officials continue to prepare for a virtual version of the Annual Town Meeting, which was supposed to take place in late March. Malloy now anticipates the virtual session to take place in early June. Presentations will be posted online for viewing by Town Meeting members beforehand, in an effort to make the process as efficient as possible. The town has been working with Senator Mike Barrett and Representative Michelle Ciccolo to push a bill forward in the House of Representatives that would authorize remote participation at town meetings.
The Select Board approved a Special Town Meeting to take place on June 1. The meeting would only have one warrant item, which would provide the authority for the Select Board to confirm the validity of any action that would take place at the subsequent Annual Town Meeting. This would only be necessary if the bill spearheaded by Rep. Ciccolo does not pass in time.
A group of concerned legislators — 15 state senators and 23 state representatives — have sent a joint letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, urging him, as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 Health Crisis, to step up the screening and release of inmates from Massachusetts penal institutions.
The letter-writing effort, initiated by State Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, was inspired by an opinion issued earlier this month by the state’s supreme judicial court, five of whose seven current members are Baker appointees.
“Among inmates and correctional officers — we’re concerned about both — the positive cases continue to climb,” said Barrett. “We think it’s quite significant that the court has issued polite but pointed advice on how to speed up the pace of releases.”
Sen. Mike Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington, said he spearheaded the letter-writing effort because he is troubled that government officials have not been adhering to a directive by the Supreme Judicial Court to speed up the process. Earlier this month, the state’s top court released a ruling directing the Department of Correction and the Parole Board to “expedite” releases in a system where social distancing is almost impossible.
“I am annoyed that the spirit of the court decision is being subverted,’’ said Barrett in an interview with WGBH News.
Nobody from Baker’s team could be reached for comment about the letter. But in a press conference on Thursday, Baker said that officials from the state Department of Correction have been working with public health officials since early March to prevent the spread of the virus.
“There’s always going to be room for improvement,’’ he said.
A group of concerned legislators — 15 State Senators and 23 State Representatives — have sent a joint letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, urging him, as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to step up the screening and release of inmates from Massachusetts penal institutions.
The letter-writing effort, initiated by State Sen. Mike Barrett (D-Lexington), was inspired by an opinion issued earlier this month by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, five of whose seven current members are Baker appointees.
“Among inmates and correctional officers — we’re concerned about both — the positive cases continue to climb,” Barrett says. “We think it’s quite significant that the Court has issued polite but pointed advice on how to speed up the pace of releases.”
Barrett and his co-signers point to the Supreme Judicial Court’s April 3rd decision on a lawsuit brought by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. “We agree,” the Court wrote in the decision, “that the situation is urgent and unprecedented, and that a reduction in the number of people who are held in custody is necessary.”
Says Barrett, “Even as the Court acknowledged significant limits to its own authority over the situation, it went on, in unusually clear terms, to advise the Governor’s Parole Board, and I quote, to ‘use every effort to expedite the several stages of this process as far as reasonably possible so as to reduce the over-all number of incarcerated inmates as quickly as possible.’ We agree with the Court, and we want the Governor to act.”
The legislators acknowledge the logistical and health challenges involved with screening inmates for release. “But, like the Justices,” they write, “we believe your Parole Board, your Department of Corrections, and the county Sheriffs of the Commonwealth can and must move faster.”
The legislators add, “As a follow-up to the Court’s action, the Special Master’s Weekly Report of April 21 is revealing, and we are concerned. Neither the Department of Corrections nor the County Sheriffs provide the Master facility-specific numbers on weekly releases pre-pandemic. Without baselines to facilitate comparisons, we cannot know whether the authorities are heeding the Court’s admonition to expedite releases. Please use the power of your office to obtain the necessary information.”
The County Sheriffs report to the Special Master that, as of April 21, 97 inmates and 86 staff within their institutions have tested positive. The Department of Corrections tells the Special Master that 117 inmates and 71 staff have tested positive. Five DOC inmates have died.
“We are mindful of the horrendous situation in Chicago,” the legislators continue. “The city’s Cook County Jail has emerged as one of the largest known sources of infection in the nation. This has ominous implications for Massachusetts, where 70% of the prisoners in Mass. DOC facilities eat and sleep within 6 feet of one another.”
Among specific actions recommended by the legislators, they ask Baker to instruct the Parole Board to shorten the processing time involved in releasing inmates already granted parole, to expedite hearings on other inmates who are eligible for parole, and to expedite the release of inmates in county houses of correction who are within 60 days of competing their minimum sentences.
“Whatever their original offenses, and whatever their original sentences, inmates throughout the Commonwealth are now in danger of suffering the ultimate penalty,” the letter concludes. “The correctional officers with whom they come into contact run the same drastic risk. For the sake of both communities, we respectfully ask that you take the steps we enumerate in this letter.”
“A year ago, the survival of the Field Station was in doubt,” said State Sen. Mike Barrett in a statement to Patch. “The nonprofit tenants, all involved with healthy eating, sustainable local agriculture, and what you might call food justice, faced eviction. But the Greater Waltham community rallied. Residents demanded that the farm be preserved and the tenants be protected. This week, thanks to the Mayor, the City Council, and the tenants for working together, we took a giant stride forward.”
Sen. Michael Barrett, the Senate chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said he is pleased with the updated regulations and especially with the administration’s decision to set aside 5 percent of the incentives for projects serving low-income communities.
“It’s a terrific step in the right direction,” he told the News Service, noting that a similar requirement was built into a bill the Senate passed in January. “We have a terrible track record in terms of making sure that poor people benefit from net metering. This is an important remedial step. It’s not enough, but it is directionally exactly where we need to go.”
The senator said the state isn’t yet setting the pace it will need to meet its emissions reduction targets, but that solar will be a critical component to getting there.
Senate votes to improve mental healthcare
Bill expands access to mental healthcare, boosts workforce, and strengthens quality of coverage
(BOSTON – 02/14/2020) The State Senate unanimously passed the Mental Health ABC Act, a comprehensive bill aimed at reforming the mental healthcare system in Massachusetts. Senate Bill 2519, An Act Addressing Barriers to Care for Mental Health, serves as the first step toward developing a more integrated system of mental healthcare delivery to better meet the needs of individuals and families.
Massachusetts residents have historically experienced difficulty accessing mental health services due to health inequities and persistent barriers to care — leaving many without the treatment they need and deserve. According to a 2018 report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts, more than half of a representative sample of fully-insured adults who sought mental healthcare services reported difficulty finding services.
“You only need to visit a Massachusetts prison to realize that parity between physical healthcare and mental healthcare is cruelly elusive,” said local State Senator Mike Barret. “It’s time to rebalance our out-of-balance system. Thank you to my neighbor and colleague Senator Cindy Friedman for her championship of this legislation.”
The Mental Health ABC Act seeks to increase access by removing barriers to timely quality care, providing the state with more effective tools to enforce existing mental health parity laws, and investing in the mental and behavioral health workforce pipeline. The legislation builds on progress made through state mental health parity laws passed in 2000 and 2008, and the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 at the federal level.
The bill is driven by the recognition that mental health is just as important as physical health for every resident of the Commonwealth — and reflects the Senate’s overall goal of improving access to mental healthcare for all. The Senate has prioritized efforts in the current legislative session to improve the delivery of mental health services in the following ways: appropriating record funding levels for mental health services in the FY20 budget; creating and funding a $10 million Behavioral Health Outreach, Access and Support Trust Fund; ensuring that health insurer’s provider network directories are accurate and up-to-date by eliminating so-called ‘ghost networks’; and protecting clinicians from unreasonable retroactive claims denials, or ‘clawbacks’ of payments for services, from insurance providers.
More on the bill:
The Mental Health ABC Act provides the state with better tools to implement and enforce mental health parity laws, which require that insurance coverage for mental health benefits be equal to and no more restrictive than coverage for physical health benefits. Mental health parity has been codified in federal and state law for decades, but enforcement of the law has been challenging. As a result, inequities persist and patients are often denied coverage for mental health treatment that is just as critical to managing their health as treatment for conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. As such, this legislation includes quicker evaluation and resolution of parity complaints, greater reporting and oversight of insurance carriers’ processes and policies related to mental healthcare coverage, and penalties and alternative remedies for when an insurance company does not comply with the law.
Every day throughout the Commonwealth, adults and children arrive in emergency departments in the throes of acute mental health crises requiring immediate treatment in an appropriate setting. Due to complex and restrictive medical necessity and prior authorization review processes imposed by insurance companies, many patients experience barriers, and delays, in treatment – creating a dysfunctional system that allows insurance companies to have more leverage in determining a patient’s course of treatment than healthcare providers. As such, the bill mandates coverage and eliminates prior authorization for mental health acute treatment for adults and children experiencing acute mental health crises, effectively placing treatment decisions in the hands of the treating clinician in consultation with the patient rather than an insurance company.
In an effort to address the mental health workforce crisis that often limits patient access to care, the bill creates a pilot program through the Department of Higher Education aimed at creating a workforce pipeline to encourage and support individuals from diverse backgrounds to work toward careers in mental health. In addition, the bill creates an interim licensure program for Licensed Mental Health Counselors so that they can be reimbursed by insurance for their services and be eligible for state and federal grant and loan forgiveness programs, increasing the number of licensed providers able to serve patients.
The bill also calls for an academic study conducted by the Office of Health Equity to review the availability of culturally competent mental healthcare providers within networks of both public and private health care payers, as well as to identify potential barriers to care for underserved cultural, ethnic and linguistic populations and the LGBTQ community. The bill further directs an interagency health equity team under the Office of Health Equity to improve access to, and the quality of, culturally competent mental health services.
The bill creates a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Fellowship Pilot Program in community health centers to offer additional support and training to psychiatric nurse practitioners who agree to work in community settings with underserved populations. The program will be designed to encourage these professionals to continue working in a community setting where mental health providers are sorely needed.
Currently, mental health and primary care providers are reimbursed at different rates for the same service. The bill seeks to level the playing field for reimbursement to mental health providers by requiring an equitable rate floor for evaluation and management services that is consistent with primary care.
The Mental Health ABC Act takes meaningful steps to improve access to care by prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for mental health services and primary care services solely because they were delivered on the same day in the same facility. This will remove a significant financial barrier to the integration of primary care and mental health.
Additionally, the bill requires emergency departments to have the capacity to evaluate and stabilize a person admitted with a mental health presentation at all times, and to refer them to appropriate treatment or inpatient admission.
This bill authorizes the DPH, the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to collaborate on authorizing three pilots for tele-behavioral health services in public high schools in the Commonwealth. This pilot is based on an existing and successful model between a hospital and several school districts in western Massachusetts.
Finally, the bill directs the DMH to consider factors that may present barriers to care—such as travel distance and access to transportation—when contracting for services in geographically isolated and rural communities.
Through debate today in the Senate, the following are some of the sections added by amendment to the bill:
- A pediatric mental healthcare task force.
- Inclusion of veterans and aging adult populations for considerations in the cultural competency study.
- An amendment to study the further screening of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
- A comprehensive behavioral workforce commission.
- An expedited admission protocol for children under 22 who present in an emergency department with mental health needs.
- An examination of ways to ease communications, within the context of privacy laws, between healthcare providers.
The Mental Health ABC Act now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
When did you start working on this climate package?
In June, so about seven months. I wanted to do a complete scan of the state government, because I chaired the energy committee and had noticed that state agencies all acknowledge the importance of climate change but still seem to be pursuing missions that were apart from it. I think climate has come up on us rather suddenly and caught us by surprise; the issue has been percolating for 30 years, but it suddenly seems very real. I had two priorities. One was to make sure state agencies were aligned and all pulling in the same direction. The other was making sure we set policies that would reassure all of us that we’re going to do something about this.
What aspects of the bill are most noteworthy?
I’ll tell you, I don’t completely trust the ability of the government to come clean about how well we’re doing. In the future, we’re going to be looking to governors to be reporting about their own performance. I don’t think that works, human nature doesn’t work like that. So we’re proposing an independent commission to really be the truth teller and the monitor. It would be the first in the country. I observed that information is held closely by the executive branch, even despite the fact that we’ve got a pretty good governor on this topic. I saw them basically holding back data that might reflect poorly on their performance, specifically around the climate issue. I should mention that this isn’t a problem with Governor Baker specifically, the same problem existed with Deval Patrick. Both Republican and Democratic governors don’t want to be held accountable. Again, I’m not even really blaming them, I think they’re embodying human nature, but I’m no longer willing to put up with it.
Emitting carbon would come with a new price in Massachusetts and the state would embark on a more aggressive timeline for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions under a bill that overwhelmingly passed the state Senate Jan. 30.
The electric vehicles bill (S 2476) directs the MBTA to limit its bus purchases and leases to zero-emissions vehicles starting in 2030 and operate an entirely zero-emissions passenger bus fleet by Dec. 31, 2040. It also makes permanent an existing rebate program for consumers buying electric cars.
The bill (S 2477) cleared the Senate on a 36-2 vote.
The energy efficiency bill (S 2478), which passed on a 35-2 vote, sets efficiency standards for a range of products, including new faucets and showerheads.
The Massachusetts State Senate recently advanced three bills that boldly tackle the contributing factors of climate change, chart one of the most aggressive courses of action against global warming in the country, and pave the way for a clean energy future for all of its residents.
The MassInc Polling Group’s survey of 2,318 Massachusetts residents was conducted between Oct. 10 and Nov. 8, 2019 and released Monday, four days after the state Senate passed climate legislation that included deadlines for the state to impose carbon-pricing mechanisms in the transportation sector, homes and commercial buildings.
All of the bills passed by a majority vote.
“Together the three really do constitute an historic new moment in the fight against climate change,” Sen. Michael Barrett (D- Lexington), who chairs the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Western Massachusetts lawmakers are hopeful that a set of climate change bills that passed the Senate Thursday night could bring new, innovative jobs in the energy sector to the region, if the legislation become law.
The cornerstone of Barrett’s package was the carbon pricing bill that would update the state’s 2050 target from reducing emissions by 80% of the 1990s levels to reducing emissions by 100%.