Budget Cuts Have Left Massachusetts Unable To Inspect Food Plants, Hospitals, And Air Quality

A half-decade of budget cuts has left Massachusetts’ public health department so understaffed that it cannot keep pace with a massive backlog of safety inspections for public facilities and investigations into Americans’ complaints about medical mismanagement and malpractice. State public health officials are now begging lawmakers for more funding in order to prevent another public health disaster like last year’s deadly meningitis outbreak, which stemmed from unclean conditions at an uninspected Massachusetts pharmaceutical mixing plant.

The Boston Globe reports that the budget cuts are so steep that there is now a five-month waiting period for investigating consumer complaints at Massachusetts nursing homes, clinics, and hospitals — including for sexual abuse and medical malpractice complaints. Other facilities such as summer camps, biotechnology firms, and food plants are simply bypassing routine inspections due to the dearth of state inspectors.

Funds were appropriated for surprise inspections of pharmaceutical facilities like the one at the root of last December’s meningitis outbreak — but only temporarily. That has public health officials and Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D) administration worried that the Commonwealth is unprepared for another outbreak barring more funds, since the surprise inspections found rust and mold at many such facilities. The state legislature has only appropriated a portion of the funds so far:

“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,” Dr. Lauren Smith said in an interview last week, her last as interim public health commissioner.

Over the past four years, the bureau responsible for health care safety has seen its budget reduced by about $4.7 million, a 26 percent cut when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Smith said the department needs to make the case for more funding “before there is any adverse outcome for any particular patient.” […]

The House included the pharmacy money in its budget, but not money for the additional inspectors the administration sought.

But even if funds for additional pharmaceutical inspectors are restored in the legislature’s budget, they still won’t be enough to address the logjam of medical complaints. That’s a major problem, since the existing backlog “means that inspectors performing routine reviews often are unaware of the pending issues,” and cannot incorporate them into their investigations.

Seeing as Patrick has been governor since 2007, he had to have signed off — and even advocated — every budget that cut funding for the public health department and led to the current resource shortage. That underscores the unfortunate reality that, while conservatives are often scrutinized for undermining health initiatives, Democratic leaders are also tempted to balance their budgets at the expense of important public health programs.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has paired his support of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion with big cuts to local counties’ funding that critics say could cripple important community medical resources. In Massachusetts, Patrick himself has fought to shutter state mental health hospitals, arguing that there are already “too many hospital beds” in the state and that patients can simply pack up and go to other mental care facilities — even though such hospitals tend to be dispersed across long distances.