BOSTON (State House News Service) – With only about three months left in his term, Gov. Charlie Baker made his final annual address Monday to the Providers’ Council and took stock of how the industry has changed since he took office nearly eight years ago.
The first change that Baker pointed out as he spoke to the industry that helps to care for Bay Staters with intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health challenges or substance use disorder was that he was looking at the hundreds of attendees in-person at the Copley Marriott rather than via a Zoom screen, as he did each of the last two years. But he also talked about the saga he went through as a candidate for governor and then as governor to increase Chapter 257 provider rates.
“Chapter 257 was enacted in 2008 and it’s just a bunch of letters and numbers. But it was supposed to be a framework and that framework was supposed to ensure that human service organizations were adequately funded from that point forward. It didn’t get funded in 2009. It didn’t get funded in 2010 — by the way, those of you who have really long memories, when I ran for governor in 2010 I said we would fund Chapter 257,” Baker said. “It didn’t get funded in ’10, it didn’t get funded in ’11, it didn’t get funded in ’12, it didn’t get funded in ’13 and, in fact, by the time we were all running for office in 2014, the provider community was spending precious resources on a lawsuit to force the commonwealth to implement its own statute and live up to the requirements and the commitments that were made in Chapter 257.”
By May of 2015, Baker said Monday, his administration had struck an agreement with providers that laid out the state’s commitments very specifically. “And that agreement has paid off,” Baker said, adding that his administration has invested $813 million in incremental rate increase for human service providers through Chapter 257 since 2015.
“Very close to a billion dollars, and in the budget that I just signed, it added $230 million to implement Chapter 257 rates,” the governor said. “And we’ve never budged away from that commitment. Now, in the budget that I just signed, Chapter 257 also includes a requirement that 75 percent of that increase go to frontline salaries, which we were happy to support.”
The human services sector has struggled for years to attract and retain workers due to the combination of lackluster pay and the difficult nature of the work. As a result, many providers operate with limited capacity and others are closed, leaving some families and individuals without needed services for which they qualify.
Jo Ann Simons, president and CEO of Northeast Arc, said the Baker administration years have been like no other time in the 40-plus years that she has been involved in the industry. Baker’s prior service as both secretary of health and human services and secretary of administration and finance gave the governor first-hand insight into the important economic sector that other governors did not have, Simons said.
“He understood our issues completely and even had solutions for many of the issues. And it was a period of partnership, collaboration and respect,” Simons said. “He delivered on his promises. He made commitments and delivered them.”
Massachusetts Providers’ Council CEO Michael Weekes worked in state government alongside Baker in the 1990s. Baker was health and human services secretary and then the administration’s budget chief, and Weekes was deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services.
“We all reported to Charlie, as we called him affectionately, and we knew he was bright, thoughtful, candid and would always ask the right questions. Our struggle was, ‘gosh, I hope we have the right answer to these questions,’ right? You know how that is at times,” Weekes said. “But we knew then, some of us at least, that, you know, I think we have a governor in the making here. Someone who’s really thoughtful about it, and wouldn’t it be great to have a governor who’s got a foundation in human services?”
Weekes said the Baker administration has given “unprecedented access” to service providers and that while not every decision has been one that the provider community agrees with, the level of respect going both ways remains high.
“There wasn’t a distance separating those of us who provide those services and the governor because we got to know him when he was secretary of human services,” Simons said. She added that Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who has held Baker’s former job for the entirety of his tenure in office, has also been critical to the strong working relationship between the administration and providers.
“The partnership they had, which we all knew about and the rest of the commonwealth got to witness during COVID, was real,” she said of Baker and Sudders.
Now, as she and other providers prepare for a new governor to take office in January, Simons is hopeful that the next governor will follow in the footprints that Baker has left behind.
“The transfer of information from this administration to the next administration will be thoughtful and complete. But we have no doubt they will leave a blueprint for the next administration that will be helpful,” she said. “And come November … we have a lot of work to do to make sure that we can maintain the same kind of access and accomplishment.”