Massachusetts Health Department Lags in Inspections

May 16, 2013

Officials at the state Public Health Department say years of budget cuts have caused the agency to fall behind on everything from investigating consumer complaints about medical facilities to ensuring that summer camps for children have enough life vests, and they want $1.6 million from the state to help catch up.

There’s a wait of more than five months for investigating problems reported in Massachusetts hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis centers and clinics. Medical and biological waste from roughly 600 biotechnology firms is not being routinely monitored to ensure proper disposal.

The department has fewer than half the minimum number of inspectors required to meet federal standards for ensuring that food plants follow safe practices.

The shortfalls are detailed in a department budget memo obtained by The Boston Globe ( ). The agency is asking for an additional $1.6 million from the state Senate in its spending plan scheduled to be unveiled Wednesday.

The money would be used to hire approximately 24 new staff members the agency regulates.

The House did not include the money in its recently released budget for the next fiscal year.

Health officials say in the memo that the plan would be cost-neutral because the department would recoup the money by assessing new or increased fees.

Over the past four years, the agency has seen its budget reduced by about $4.7 million.

“The department has done a herculean task at doing the best it absolutely can with the resources that have understandably been short over the past half decade,” department Commissioner Dr. Lauren Smith said.

The department has had to deal with two major scandals in the past year – a national fungal meningitis outbreak traced to a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy that had not been regularly inspected by the state pharmacy board, which is overseen by the health department, and revelations that a chemist working in the department’s crime lab allegedly mishandled or falsified drug evidence.

David Falcone, spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray, did not answer questions about whether the Senate might include the requested funds in its upcoming budget, saying in a statement that leaders will “have these discussions as the budget process continues.”

The department receives about 14,000 consumer complaints a year.

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