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Opinion

Moving Beyond the Blame Game

Family members of veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home didn’t need a 174-page review by a former federal prosecutor to tell them that something went terribly wrong at that facility in March and April, leading to the deaths of 75 residents.

But the report did what it was commissioned to do — analyze the facts concerning what happened at the home and come to a conclusion as to how this tragedy was allowed to play itself out and answer what was, for a time, the most pressing question about all this: ‘who is to blame?’

Indeed, in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations at the Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature both used the phrase ‘get to the bottom of this’ (unofficially or unofficially) as the scope of the tragedy grew, as did the thirst for answers. And the report has certainly identified some people to blame.

Starting with state officials for not only giving the job of running the home to a veteran (Bennett Walsh) who had no experience leading a long-term-care facility, but then failing to provide adequate amounts of oversight to Walsh and others charged with the care of veterans. But Walsh is also singled out for triggering a series of decisions that allowed COVID-19 to race through the home, affecting residents and staff members alike.

With language that can only be described as heartbreaking, the report recounts the thoughts of one staff member after management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe: “[I] will never get those images out of my mind — what we did, what was done to those veterans … my God, where is the respect and dignity for these men?” Other staff members were quoted as saying, “all in this room will be dead by tomorrow.”

While the report is certainly a valuable document, the veterans who died, their families, and staff members who lived through this horrible tragedy want so much more than a document that chronicles what happened and assigns blame. They want and need for this catastrophe to lead to meaningful and permanent changes that will ensure that no one will ever say, ‘where is the respect and dignity for these men?’ again.

That is our hope as well, and while the governor and legislators sound sincere when they say this is their overriding concern with the regard to the Soldiers’ Home, we know from history that when stories disappear from the front pages of newspapers, the will to implement meaningful change dissipates.

We can’t allow that to happen in this case.

Changes proposed by the governor, including several not in the report, include creation of a consistent policy at Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea for the hiring of a superintendent; creating more oversight by hiring an assistant secretary within the state Department of Veterans’ Services who would serve as an executive director for the state’s two soldiers’ homes and report directly to the secretary of Veterans’ Services; expanding the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities from seven to nine and requiring that the two additions each have either a clinical or administrative background in healthcare; and, most importantly, perhaps, making immediate and long-term capital improvements to modernize residential units and furnishings to address infection control — renovations are currently underway on one floor, but a more comprehensive plan of modernization and improvements is certainly needed.

History also shows us that, following some of the worst tragedies in history — the Triangle fire in New York City, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and even the Titanic’s sinking — reviews that initially focused on laying blame eventually led to serious, and often historic, reforms.

If that can happen with the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, then perhaps those veterans who bravely served their country will not have died in vain.

Opinion

Opinion

A quick look around downtown Springfield and other area communities would reveal that the economy, which had been in a kind of deep freeze for the better part of three months, is showing signs of coming back to life.

Let’s start with the tents. Indeed, they’re an interesting symbol of how the restaurant industry is emerging from a state-forced hibernation of sorts that saw them relegated to takeout service only. Such tents are now to be found in a number of parking lots, alleyways, and even closed streets as restaurants try to claw back with outdoor dining.

Perhaps the most visible sign of all this is Fort Street in downtown Springfield, where the owners of the iconic Student Prince restaurant have placed several tents and created an atmosphere that not only speaks of Europe — where outdoor dining is far more commonplace — but prompts one to wonder why it took a pandemic to create something like this. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that will be in place until the fall, and could become a yearly addition to the downtown landscape. Let’s hope it does.

And there are other signs of life as well, including the pending reopening of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, and other attractions. Tourism has become a huge part of this region’s economy, and this economic engine, if you will, won’t be firing on anything approaching all its cylinders until this sector roars back to life.

And that’s the sobering news amid the positive signs we’ve seen lately. Indeed, while these businesses are reopening, they are not roaring back — yet, anyway. As the story on page 10 reveals, hotels and tourist attractions have had a miserable spring, and the summer is dominated by question marks about whether the tourists will come back, and how many of them.

There is optimism that concern about traveling in anything but an automobile will spark a surge of interest in so-called staycations that might benefit the region and its many tourist attractions. The theory goes that, instead of traveling across the country or to other countries — or even Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, for that matter — residents of this state and neighboring states might take in the attractions of Western Mass.

We have to hope some of this happens.

But matters are complicated by several factors, starting with the MGM casino and the many restrictions likely to be placed upon it. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still discussing a number of guidelines, but at the moment, craps, poker, and roulette will not be allowed, and overall capacity might be set at perhaps 25% of previous levels. These restrictions will make it difficult for MGM to operate in anything approaching a profitable manner, and they will also limit the number of visitors who might come to the casino and then take in more of the region.

Then there’s the matter of the Big E. Huge questions surround what the 2020 fair might look like and whether there will even be a 2020 fair. No Big E, or even a much smaller Big E, would be a huge blow to the hospitality industry that depends on it.

So, while there are some signs of life in the region when it comes to the economy and tourism, we still have a long way to go. v

Opinion

Riots Reflect Deeper Issue of Racism

Editor’s Note: In the wake of recent incidents in Minneapolis and other communities, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO Roger Crandall issued the following letter to employees.

In response to the racist acts that have come to light over the past several weeks, I wanted to directly address the deep frustration, anger, and sadness weighing heavily on all of us, especially the African-American and black community. The tragic and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the delays in bringing justice against those responsible, as well as the ugly confrontation in Central Park, have been vivid reminders of the prejudice and bigotry that continue to exist in our country.

Importantly, while we mourn for each of these victims, our hearts ache for many others previously killed under similar circumstances, including those whose names we don’t know, simply because there was no video or witness. These losses of human lives are staggering, unjust, and incomprehensible — and are taking a painful, emotional toll on our country.

The violence and riots of the past weekend are symptoms of the deeper issues of racism, inequality, and hopelessness that continue to exist in America today, and reflect the expressions of a community that feels its voice is not being heard. These issues have shaped everything from where people live to the healthcare they receive, to their access to education, to their treatment by the justice system. We see the results of this today during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people of color have shouldered a far greater impact, with the African-American and black community accounting for a higher proportion of deaths compared to other racial groups.

This is a vast, systemic problem, and I wish I was writing to you today with a crisp, detailed plan for how we will fix it. I don’t have this plan, and frankly no one does. But I can tell you instead what MassMutual is doing and what is on my mind.

First and foremost, I want to voice my — and the executive leadership team’s — support for our colleagues in the African-American and black community. Your voices, perspectives, and feelings matter to us. While I can’t begin to understand the full extent of your pain and hurt — how fear and discrimination are part of your everyday activities, or how you may worry as a parent when your child goes for a jog or enters a store — I want you to know we firmly stand with you as allies and advocates. Each of us can make a difference simply by asking how others are doing and spending time listening to their experiences, fears, and concerns, so we can learn more about what we can do as allies to take meaningful action and offer our support.

Secondly, at the heart of who we are and who we have been since our founding nearly 170 years ago is a company of people helping people. I want to reiterate that MassMutual’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is non-negotiable, and part of our core values and our promise to Live Mutual to make our world better. We will honor the memories of the victims of these senseless acts by influencing real change, and we are working with a cross-functional team, including representatives from our Passages Business Resource Group, to identify the best way to engage and act as an organization to advance how we address these complex issues.

Most immediately, Passages hosted a ‘Brave Space’ discussion recently to talk about these recent events and consider ways we can work together to build a sustainable, lasting effort to fight inequality and recognize and value the differences among us. While outside our walls, we are also actively working to unify business leaders to use our collective voices to drive change in our communities and workplaces.

In the meantime, I promise you this: MassMutual will stand with the victims of racism and hate crimes of any kind, with the people fighting oppression, and with everyone seeking to turn their sadness at recent events into actions that will build a better world. This is not the country I want to leave to my children and grandchildren. We can — and must — do better.

Opinion

Editorial

If you watched Gov. Charlie Baker at his highly anticipated press conference to announce the state’s reopening plan last week, you may have been very disappointed.

The governor said he is trying to create a balance between keeping people safe and attempting to resurrect an economy that was seen by many as being one of the strongest in the country — although not anymore, thanks in part to the governor.

If balance is the goal, this plan — if we can really call it a plan — falls way short. It doesn’t move quickly or profoundly enough, and it leaves far too many of the small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy without any real chance to weather this storm.

In short, Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside (if they can); a situation where a yoga school with eight students is put in the same category as a Planet Fitness with thousands of members.

As most everyone knows by now, the Baker administration’s reopening plan has four phases — named ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal.’ On May 18, a day every business owner had circled on his or her calendar, the governor gave some details on phase 1. Manufacturing and construction could restart immediately, with restrictions, as could places of worship, while hospitals and community health centers can now provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions. On May 25, laboratory and life-sciences facilities can open; offices can reopen, except in Boston; and recreational-marijuana shops can reopen, as can salons, barber shops, and pet groomers. Retail facilities can open for remote fulfillment and curbside pickup.

Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside.

But there are no details on phase 2, which includes restaurants and lodging, some healthcare facilities, and playgrounds and pools, or phase 3, which includes bars, casinos, gyms, and museums. All that’s known is that each phase will last at least three weeks and could be extended before moving on to the next stage, depending on factors like COVID rates, testing, and healthcare-system readiness.

For small businesses, this slow, plodding pace and lack of details makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan and — more importantly — stay alive. The governor’s plan is anything but a plan, and it will spell the demise of many small businesses.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, put things in perspective when he told BusinessWest, “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with those protocols. They’ll need to plan, order equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight.”

The reopening panel could have recognized the needs of small businesses and implemented common-sense protocols to allow them to open. Instead, it chose not to. Clearly, there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for just how endangered our state’s small businesses are, or what will become of our cities and towns if they are allowed to die on the vine.

These businesses need more than a belated plan with cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) named stages. They need a common-sense blueprint for effectively reopening an economy that’s been shut down for two tortuously long months.

The governor’s ‘plan’ is anything but that.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mary Flahive-Dickson

Seemingly, there is very little time for reflection these days. As we move from one news report, one Zoom meeting, one emergency to another, it is not lost on us that this is now our norm; life has changed. Restlessness is nationwide. Our communities are apprehensive at best, and our seniors are even more isolated now than any other historical time.

Social isolation, while defined as a lack of relationships and meaningful contact with society, needs to be further contemplated and gauged in our elder population as COVID-19 continues to force us to shelter in place, while begging for social and physical distance.

Caregivers, as catechized members of the front line, are being asked to rise to the challenge of defense against physical and social isolation of seniors.

Our elders are seemingly the target of so many evil pathogens and infections as their immunologic response has slowed and their physicality is compromised. Add life-changing risk factors such as retirement, death of loved ones, and the global nature of our society to the geriatric mix, and oftentimes the result assumes the form of social and physical isolation and loneliness.

Isolated and lonely seniors are at an increased risk for additional physical and emotional health conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and cognitive decline. With the loss of a sense of connectivity to the outside world and specifically their community, our elders run the risk of a decrease in wellness and a general decline in health.

Additionally, and especially in the current COVID-19 theatre, physical and emotional needs such as activities of daily living (ADL), companionship, and personal care may not be satisfied or executed. This situation is yet another nail in the proverbial coffin of enabling an immunologic response to infections, therefore rendering individuals less able to fight off disease, while increasing their risk of mortality.

Conversely, elders who engage with society, continue to be active and cognitively stimulated, have conversations, and have their ADLs satiated oftentimes experience increased positive influential health opportunities and many times are able to maintain the state of wellness longer.

Our role as caregivers is to facilitate an improvement or at least a maintenance of independence, health, and well-being of our elders. By providing for and assisting them with activities of daily living, promoting self-care, and reinforcing social support and a sense of community, caregivers continue to promote and disseminate multiple dimensions of physical and emotional health and wellness among this population.

As society continues to seesaw under the cloud of COVID-19, the senior population is not exempt from partaking in groups, programs, and activities which can help in thwarting physical and social isolation and loneliness. In fact, for the seniors, it is just the opposite. No populace has seen a furthering of isolation more than the seniors.

And, with home care widely accepted as a significant player in promotion of health and wellness, staving off mortality and reduction of admissions to institutional care such as hospitals and skilled-nursing facilities, caregivers’ roles should be touted as the front-line essential necessity they have always been, albeit unpronounced.

Mary Flahive-Dickson is chief operating officer for Golden Years Home Care Services.

Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

 

Remember that classic scene in Young Frankenstein (even you Millennials have seen it, I’m sure) when Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced Frankensteeen), and Marty Feldman (Igor) are in the graveyard digging up the corpse that will become the monster. Wilder says, “what a filthy job!” Feldman says, “it could be worse.” Wilder asks, “how could it possibly be worse?” Feldman says, “could be raining.”

And then it starts pouring.

Life has felt like that these past few weeks. Someone will say, ‘how could it be worse?’ And it starts raining, in a proverbial sense. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have lost some, most, or all of their revenue streams. People are running out of toilet paper — or they’re really, really afraid that they will. We lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (The who?) People stuck at home are losing their patience, if not their minds, and we’re just really getting started with this pandemic. And then it snowed on Monday!

There are no sports! How many times can we watch the Patriots beat the Falcons in replays of Super Bowl LII? We know how it ends! The Masters has been postponed if not cancelled. Golf courses are apparently not on the ‘essential’ businesses list put out by the governor’s office. How can golf courses not be on the essential businesses list?

If anyone says ‘it could be worse,’ our immediate temptation is to say, ‘no, it can’t.’

To borrow from Dickens, these really are the worst of times. This is worse than any downturn in the economy, worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. It’s worse because there is so much uncertainty — about today, tomorrow, three months from now, and a year from now.

Not only that, but life is different now. Everything is weird. If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger. If we’re out at the store, we look at everyone as if they might have the virus, and the look isn’t a good one.

Everyone is on edge about their jobs, their life savings, their 401(k), their health, the health of their loved ones. You can see it in their faces, and if you’re talking to them on the phone (which we all are), you can hear in their voices. You can also hear them yawn, because people are not sleeping, by and large. Who could sleep with all this going on?

If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger.

And yet, there is something else, something far more powerful and positive going on, and it’s worth noting.

Yes, there are now security guards and even off-duty police in the toilet-paper aisle in many supermarkets. And yes, sales of guns and ammo are skyrocketing. And yes, we’re already starting to see a rise in reported instances of domestic violence. But despite all this, it’s abundantly clear to me that people are caring more about each other.

And it’s about time.

People don’t just put their initials at the end of an e-mail anymore. They say ‘be well,’ ‘stay well,’ or ‘take care of yourself.’ And they mean it. People are bringing food and coffee to those who are shut in (and that’s most people now). Co-workers are being nicer to each other. When I dropped off the golf cart at a club in Connecticut last Saturday, I walked over to the attendant who was parking it — someone who would likely be unemployed in about 27 hours — and said (from six feet away), “good luck to you — hope you get through this OK.” And I meant it.

You’re seeing a lot more of that these days, and this, more than anything else, will get us to the other side — whenever and whatever that happens to be.

Yes, it could be worse. It could be raining. It seems like it’s already raining — pouring, in fact. But there’s a little sunlight trickling in.

And it might be just enough.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus

‘Getting to the other side.’

That’s the mantra you’re hearing now. Or one of them, anyway. That and ‘flatten the curve.’

Business owners and managers across the region and across the country are talking about the ‘other side,’ that magical place when and where we can talk about the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense.

It seems a long way away, and it probably is. It could be a few months. It could be several months. It could be 18 months, according to some sources. We have to hope it’s not that last number.

Whenever it is, the assignment is to get there, and it’s already becoming painfully evident that some won’t.

Those that will get there will have to call upon every bit of imagination, persistence, and resourcefulness they possess, because, as we’re already seeing with the restaurant sector and other aspects of the hospitality industry, the challenge is already significant and will only get worse with time.

Indeed, it was just a few weeks ago that people were talking about rescuing the White Hut in West Springfield. Now, the talk is of how to rescue not only every restaurant in the 413, but businesses in virtually every sector.

In this battle, resilience and resourcefulness will be the key attributes, and we can already look to the restaurant industry for some inspiration in those regards. Indeed, while most all of those businesses have had to lay off people, many are winding ways to keep people employed as long as possible while also looking for whatever revenue sources they can, including delivery, takeout, and even bringing the restaurant experience into one’s home — a concept still in the formative stages.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners are already exploring every form of relief possible, including state and federal assistance, SBA loans, and more — something many businesses will have to do. And they are collaborating on an effort called Strength in Numbers, which encourages area residents to support their favorite eateries by buying gift certificates now for use later, with a 20% incentive.

And we can also look to that sector for inspiration in other ways — everything from how area residents are, in fact, supporting those businesses, to their positive outlook at a time when their world has literally been turned upside down.

Indeed, we like what Peter Rosskothen has to say about all this. Perhaps no business owner in the region has been hit harder. His multi-faceted stable of businesses is grounded in hospitality, especially banquets, gatherings, and fine dining. At the moment, he can’t host a wedding, a meeting of the Holyoke Rotary Club, or BusinessWest’s Difference Makers banquet (yes, that was scheduled for tonight — March 19 — at the Log Cabin, but has been moved to Sept. 10).

Still, he’s finding ways to stay positive.

“The best we can do is utilize our smartness and fight through this as much as we can,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a very resilient country; we’ll come out of this, and something good will come out of this — I’m convinced of that. We might be struggling a little bit, but something good will come out of this.”

We agree. Such optimism, by itself, isn’t going to get us to the other side, when we can finally, thankfully, look back on all this. But it certainly helps.

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

Opinion

Editorial

A few weeks back, we referenced that massive public hearing conducted to provide an update on the ongoing study of rail options for the Commonwealth. At that time, we focused on the high degree of skepticism concerning the state’s projections for cost and especially ridership (Western Mass. planners project almost 500,000 riders annually, while MassDOT has estimated roughly half that number and now promises to take a second look at the projections) and, overall, the many expressed opinions that the state wasn’t being sincere in its approach to this study.

All this is problematic on many levels. But there was one comment that was troubling on another level. It had to do with repeated use of the phrase ‘east-west rail,’ which has been used in most of the discussions and is even the formal name of this ongoing initiative — the ‘East-West Passenger Rail Study.’ The comment was made that it should be called ‘west-east rail’ because this is the region that would be benefit, and — we’re paraphrasing here — it’s essentially a Western Mass. project.

This line of thinking is flawed in a number of respects. Let’s start with the whole Western Mass. inferiority-complex thing — and it is a thing. Many out here have that complex, and it manifests itself in a number of ways, including jokes — if they’re even jokes — about how this region would be better off if it seceded and became part of Vermont. But to suggest that labeling a study ‘East-West’ as opposed to ‘West-East’ is a slight, and an indication of the state’s indifference to all the real estate west of Worcester, is take things too far and miss the far bigger point.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

But there’s something else that’s wrong with this line of thinking — something far more important. This isn’t a Western Mass. project, and it can’t simply be a Western Mass. project. Why? Because it will never sell if it is. The state just isn’t going to spend $25 billion or $5 billion or even $2 billion — the various price tags attached to the options outlined at the meeting last month — on a Western Mass. project.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

We get it. This project is mostly, if not entirely, being pushed by Western Mass. lawmakers and especially state Sen. Eric Lesser from Longmeadow. And one of their arguments is that this rail line would likely provide a huge boost to many of the cities and towns that are not seeing the same kind of economic prosperity being enjoyed by communities inside Route 128. It would provide a lifeline to communities that are seeing their populations age and decline because young people don’t have enough incentives to live in these places. It would, according to those proposing it, help level the laying field between east and west.

But that’s not the only argument, and it can’t be the only argument if this thing is ever going to move beyond the study phase and stand any chance of being approved by the Legislature.

For this to work, it has to be a project that will benefit not only Chester and Palmer, Pittsfield and Springfield, but also Boston and its suburbs, which are seeing congestion, traffic, and overall cost of living rise to almost untenable levels.

We understand that a name is not a big deal, and it’s mostly about semantics. Why not call it the ‘West-East Rail Study’? We could, if it would make people out here feel better (it wouldn’t make us feel better). But we should instead call it the ‘Commonwealth Rail Study,’ because it’s a project to benefit those living or working on both sides of the state.

If it wasn’t, it would never get off the ground.

Opinion

Editorial

Mike Mathis, the individual who guided MGM Springfield through the permitting and construction phases and then the first 17 months of operation, is out at the South End resort casino. MGM has chosen to go in another direction, leadership-wise, and probably also with regard to how the casino operates.

Mathis’s ouster was announced Tuesday, and it was immediately linked to December’s record-low monthly performance for the Springfield casino when it comes to gross gaming revenues — under $19 million. That same month, Encore Boston had its best month since it opened last summer (with $54 million), and the juxtaposition of the numbers is telling.

What they show, at least from a gaming revenues standpoint, is that MGM is not attracting enough gamblers — it’s not bringing enough people to its doors. Chris Kelley, who ran MGM’s operation in Northfield Park in Ohio and took over in Springfield on Tuesday, will be charged with changing that equation. Mathis will assume a new role as senior vice president of Business Development at MGM, working on various company initiatives.

“We are excited to have Chris lead the MGM Springfield team,” said Jorge Perez, regional portfolio president of MGM Resorts International. “Chris’ experience in Ohio, rebranding and integrating a property and introducing MGM to the community, will be an asset for Springfield as we continue to work closely with the community and strive to not only be a world-class entertainment destination but also a good corporate neighbor.”

That won’t be an easy assignment. Indeed, while MGM Springfield has succeeded in bringing jobs, additional vibrancy, and opportunities for a number of small businesses, it hasn’t really succeeded in its primary mission — bringing people to Springfield.

This has been clear since the day it opened in August 2018, when visitation was well below what was expected. For roughly a year, Mathis repeatedly used the phrase ‘ramping up’ to describe what was happening, with the expectation — based on previous experience at other casinos — that the numbers would improve.

There have been some good months since, but the numbers haven’t improved significantly, if at all. And now that Encore Boston seems to be hitting its stride, it will that much more difficult to improve those gaming revenues.

From the start, the question has always been ‘will people come to Springfield?’ But there have been variations on that query, including ‘will people come to Springfield now that Encore Boston is open?’ and ‘will people come to Springfield instead of Boston, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and all the other places where there’s casino gambling?’

Roughly 17 months after the casino opened, the answer to the question is the proverbial ‘yes, but…’ And the ‘but’ is followed by ‘not enough of them.’

It’s clear that MGM will have to create more draws — like the highly successful Red Sox Winter Weekend that brought an estimated 10,000 people to Main Street — to bring individuals and groups to the City of Homes.

In short, people need more reasons to come to the Springfield casino, and it will be Chris Kelley’s assignment to create them.

Opinion

Opinion

By Gretchen Harrison

Massachusetts employers project lower wage and salary increases, a consistent level of recruitment activity, and moderating health-insurance premium increases for 2020 after navigating a solid but volatile economy during 2019.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently published its 2020 HR Practices Report, showing that companies project a 2.77% salary-increase budget for 2020, consistent with the 2.71% actual increase reported for 2019 but down from the 2.86% reported in the 2018 HR Practices Report.

Meanwhile, national salary-increase projections for 2020 have risen slightly from the prior year to 3.3%. Salary-increase trends in Massachusetts have tended to lag national numbers in recent years, and the gap has begun to widen.

How does a state with a 2.9% unemployment rate, a persistent shortage of skilled workers, and an impending demographic cliff show slower wage growth than the rest of the nation? Survey data suggest several reasons.

First, escalating regulatory costs (minimum wage) and non-wage compensation costs (health insurance and paid family and medical leave) are making employers cautious about increasing pay. Companies generally have a set compensation budget, so increases in these ancillary costs may put downward pressure on wages. In addition, the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act may be limiting the degree to which employers are able to offer compensation incentives to ‘superstar’ job candidates.

Members of the AIM Board of Economic Advisers offer additional explanations:

• Wages are already much higher than the national average in Massachusetts, meaning increases represent a smaller percentage of total wages.

• Massachusetts is aging quickly. Older workers are at a steadier place in their careers and see slower wage growth. As they retire, they are replaced by less expensive younger workers. This is a natural drag on overall wage growth.

• The higher-skill workers who dominate the Massachusetts economy get a significant portion of their compensation in non-wage forms like bonuses, commissions, and stock options. Projected recruitment activity for 2020 is expected to be comparable with actual recruitment experienced in 2019, which saw a significant increase over 2018 volumes.

The wage and salary increase projections come as unemployment in Massachusetts remains at record low levels. And while the state economy contracted by 0.2% during the third quarter, analysts say the downturn does not appear to indicate the beginning of a recession, but rather the capacity limits against which the state is bumping.

These include the barriers to labor-force growth presented by an aging population as the departure of Baby Boomers from the regional workforce continues.

Gretchen Harrison is director of AIM HR Solutions.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sue Kline

It’s an autumn afternoon at the Morgan School in Holyoke, and Superintendent Stephen Zrike Jr. is performing what might look like a magic trick, or maybe a minor miracle: he has the quiet, rapt attention of a class full of boisterous preschoolers, who sit in a semicircle with mouths agape and eyes glued on him and what he’s holding in his hand.

It’s not an iPad or a smartphone or a flashy toy or a magic wand — it’s a book. Specifically, it’s The Family Book by Todd Parr, one of four books the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) is gifting to children in Holyoke Public Schools and Springfield Public Schools this year through Stories to Achieve Reading Success (STARS), an initiative to support early reading and family engagement. After the reading and a discussion, the children — smiling wide and with a bit of shock — receive their own individual copies to take home and read with their families.

For these children, these books are magic: they open doors to new worlds, they offer enchanting stories and illustrations that are just as miraculous on the 50th read as on the first, and the books are theirs to keep forever. In today’s digital age, where screens are ubiquitous and you can read a 1,000-page novel on your phone, there is still something special about holding a beautiful book in your hands.

Parent Ashley Garcia is thrilled with the most recent selection, saying, “I absolutely love how The Family Book acknowledges diversity. Sometimes it can be challenging to explain to young children that all families are unique, yet, despite differences, all families are brought together by one thing, which is love. The colorful pictures and simple words make this a perfect gift.”

HGCF introduced STARS, now in its second year, to advance a simple but urgent goal — to help get kids in Holyoke and Springfield reading from a young age. Abundant academic research suggests strong linkages between early reading and later educational success. That makes STARS much more than a program that makes learning more fun and engaging for children and families; it’s an investment in the long-term futures of these students that can pay dividends for years to come.

Patricia Chavez, Holyoke’s director of Early Childhood Learning, notes that “partnering with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation has been a wonderful opportunity, bolstering the home-to-school connection, something we are always striving toward. Because each book is accompanied with reading tips and ideas for parents, there’s a great opportunity for families to engage.”

STARS gifts four books throughout the year from the established curriculum to 2,400 children in Springfield and Holyoke preschools. The program is a real gem — we’re awed by the extraordinary work being done in classrooms by preschool educators who transmit to youngsters an early love of stories, and very proud that the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation can help extend preschoolers’ positive classroom reading experiences into their homes.”

For more information about STARS and available opportunities to assist in expanding outreach to additional Holyoke and Springfield preschools, e-mail [email protected].

Sue Kline is director of  Stories to Achieve Reading Success.

Opinion

Opinion

By Robert Rio

The climate protesters who took to the streets of Boston earlier this month targeted the wrong people.

If these people really want to impact the climate debate, they should turn their attention outside of a state that is already well on its way to achieving the goals outlined at the State House demonstrations.

Massachusetts has had a law on the books for more than a decade that mandates an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from all sectors (electric generation, transportation, and buildings) by 2050. Admittedly, that isn’t 100%, but worrying about whether Massachusetts meets 80% or 100% misses the larger picture.

There are separate regulations aimed at carbon reduction as well. State policy requires that 80% of electricity be generated using carbon-free sources by 2050. And new proposed regulations by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will move that requirement to nearly 100% during the same time frame. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) supports the proposed regulations.

The Baker administration has already finalized contracts for one offshore wind farm, and another one is going through the approval process. These developments will leave the region humming with new turbines.

Additionally, a large hydro power project is being routed through Maine to supply about 18% of Massachusetts’ total power. Without hydro power, our transition to carbon-free energy will be delayed for decades because it would take an enormous amount of additional solar or offshore wind to make up for the loss of carbon-free hydro power.

That leaves transportation, which accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse-gas emissions — 45% and growing.

Gov. Baker has been a leader in addressing transportation-based greenhouse gases and is a visible backer of the 12-state (plus the District of Columbia) regional effort to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). AIM has joined with the administration and several environmental groups to support this effort, and the governor is always looking for more support.

TCI will establish a regional cap on carbon emissions while auctioning emissions allowances. Proceeds from the TCI fee will be sent back to each participating state to improve statewide public transportation and to encourage fuel users to purchase alternative vehicles.

A MassINC poll published this month found that a majority of registered voters in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia strongly or somewhat support their home state’s participation in TCI. Some states, however, are balking at joining TCI. Perhaps the Boston climate activists could take their message to other state capitals to ensure that this critical multi-state effort gets off the ground.

Declaring victory and moving on is tough, but it is necessary to move on from Massachusetts and concentrate efforts in those areas where the greatest changes should be made. The best thing for all of us to do is acknowledge our work favorably and let the rest of the nation know it can be done with the right leadership.

Robert Rio is senior vice president, Government Affairs at AIM.

Opinion

Editorial

Ordinarily, a press release announcing that one of the region’s colleges or universities had maintained its accreditation with the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) would barely register as news.

But this was not the case with the recent announcement that NECHE voted to continue the accreditation of Hampshire College. Or ‘embattled Hampshire College,’ as the case may be, because it seems that this adjective has more or less became attached to the school as it has endured severe economic hardship over the past 18 months or so.

Indeed, maintaining accreditation was hardly a foregone conclusion for this school, which has seen enrollment drop dramatically, putting it in fiscal peril. In fact, for some, it seemed like a long shot.

So NECHE’s vote, which essentially buys Hampshire College two years to put itself on much more solid ground, is a milestone, and, hopefully, the first of many.

The vote is affirmation that the school — which has vowed to maintain its independence, launched a major fundraising campaign, hired a new president and several other administrators, and set ambitious goals for enrollment for 2020, its 50th-anniversary year — is on the right track.

Hampshire and its new leader, Ed Wingenbach, said they had a plan, or a path forward. They told NECHE that it is “ambitious, data-driven, and achievable.” And NECHE, apparently, is in agreement.

But this doesn’t mean Hampshire College is out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

While the school maintained its accreditation, there were some caveats, most of them involving what’s known as “institutional resources,’ or the bottom line. Hampshire’s still isn’t very good, and it needs to get much better.

To that end, the school has set about raising $60 million by 2024; an ambitious capital campaign called “Change in the Making: A Campaign for Hampshire” was kicked off at ceremonies on the campus last week. And while Hampshire is off to a great start — more than $11 million has been raised toward that goal, and the school has some good friends that can help it in this endeavor (alumnus Ken Burns is serving as co-chair of the campaign), that is a very big number.

And, as been noted several times over the past few years, demographics and other conditions are not working in Hampshire’s favor as it works to stabilize its future. High-school classes continue to get smaller, and this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the sky-high price of a college education is prompting many young people and their parents to put a premium on value and return on investment when they search for a school, a trend that further endangers small private schools with large price tags — like Hampshire.

Had the school not maintained accreditation, that would have been a virtual death knell. It’s hard enough to attract students considering the conditions listed above; it’s nearly impossible when a school has lost accreditation.

But the announcement from NECHE is merely the first of several milestones that Hampshire must reach. This will still be an uphill battle, but the school has in essence made it through base camp.

Hampshire College has been given an important lease on life. Now, it must make the very most of this opportunity.

Opinion

Opinion

By Kristen Rupert

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and its 3,500 members urge the U.S. Congress to approve the new USMCA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The reason is simple — Canada and Mexico purchase more U.S.-made goods than the next 11 trading partner countries combined. USMCA will help to preserve more than 2 million American manufacturing jobs — at least 15,000 of them in Massachusetts — that rely on trade with Canada and Mexico.

Time is short for Congress to act. The U.S. House and Senate need to pass the USMCA before the year’s end.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Democrats have inched closer to supporting the deal. They have worked to iron out lingering concerns in weeks of talks with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The USMCA was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). USMCA strengthens and modernizes intellectual-property rules, sets new digital-economy standards, expands U.S. manufacturers’ access to Canada and Mexico, ensures that U.S. companies can sell their products duty-free into these markets, eliminates red tape at the border, and levels the playing field by raising standards, prohibiting anti-U.S. discrimination, and strengthening enforcement.

AIM is in contact with the Massachusetts delegation in Congress to encourage them to pass the USMCA. Gov. Charlie Baker calls the agreement “strong, fair and flexible.” Among the many products that are traded between Massachusetts and Canada and Mexico are auto parts, medical devices, lab instruments, semiconductors, paper products, and aerospace parts. Most of the manufacturing exports from Massachusetts going to Canada and Mexico are produced by small and medium-sized businesses.

AIM urges employers to contact their members of Congress to emphasize how important the USMCA is to manufacturing companies in Massachusetts. Industry associations, individual companies, and elected officials across the U.S. encourage an immediate vote on USMCA.

Kristen Rupert is senior vice president of External Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts and director of AIM’s International Business Council.

Opinion

Opinion

By Alex Zlatin

A company’s intention in a job interview is to find the person who best fits a particular position. But quite often, the candidate who is hired fails, and usually their exit is related to attitude issues that weren’t revealed in the interview.

That raises the question: are interviewers asking the wrong questions — and consequently hiring the wrong people? Some traditional styles of interviewing are outdated, thus wasting time and resources while letting better candidates slip away.

It still astounds me to meet HR professionals who lack the basic skills of interviewing. In 2019, ‘tell me about yourself’ is still a way to start an interview, and that’s absurd. The only thing you get is people who describe the outline of their résumé, which you already know.

Here are some interview approaches to help HR leaders, recruiters, and executives find the right candidate:

• Make it a two-way conversation. Traditional interviewing focuses too much on the candidate’s skills and experience rather than on their motivation, problem-solving ability, and willingness to collaborate. Rather than making most of the interview a rigid, constant question-and-answer format that can be limiting to both sides, have a two-way conversation and invite them to ask plenty of questions.

• Flip their résumé upside down. Surprise them by going outside the box and asking them something about themselves that isn’t on their résumé or in their cover letter. See how creatively they think and whether they stay calm. You want to see how a candidate thinks on their feet — a trait all companies value.

• Ask open-ended questions. Can this candidate make a difference in your company? Answering that question should be a big aim of the interview. Ask questions that allude to how they made a difference in certain situations at their past company. Then present a hypothetical situation and ask how they would respond.

• Don’t ask cliched questions. Some traditional interview questions only lead to candidates telling interviewers what the candidate thinks the company wants to hear. Interviewers should stop asking pointless questions like, ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘why do you want to work for this company?’ Candidates rehearse these answers, and many of them are similar, so that doesn’t allow them to stand apart.

• Learn from the candidate’s questions. The questions candidates ask can indicate how deeply they’ve studied the company and how interested they really are. A good candidate uses questions to learn about the role, the company, and the boss to assess whether it’s the right job for them.

• Don’t take copious notes. The tendency by interviewers to write down the candidate’s answers and other observations is a huge obstacle to building a solid two-way conversation because it removes the crucial element of eye contact.

 

Alex Zlatin is CEO of dental practice-management company Maxim Software Systems.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

Massachusetts is about to undertake the most sweeping restructuring of public-education funding since 1993. What does it mean for employers?

The 3,500 member companies of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) who depend upon the public schools to prepare the workforce of the future support education reform that contains specific and measurable performance objectives. Anyone who owns or manages a business tracks return on investment, and the investment we make in our public schools and students should be no different.

However, employers do not support the sort of reform being promoted by some advocates who have been calling at rallies for a ‘blank check’ of billions of dollars of state aid with no accountability.

While the National Assessment of Education Progress indicates that Massachusetts has the best public schools in the nation, that same assessment shows significant achievement gaps between white students and black and Latino students. Massachusetts finds itself in the bottom half of states with respect to black-white achievement gaps across almost all grades in reading and math and in the bottom third of states with respect to Latino-white achievement gaps across all grades in both reading and math. The achievement gap matters to employers confronting a persistent shortage of qualified workers in an economy running at 2.9% unemployment.

Reforming the school funding formula will probably cost taxpayers around $1 billion. Employers understand better than anyone the importance of making strategic investments, but they also know that pouring money into a broken system is not the answer. Employer support for education reform hinges on the establishment of clear and measurable standards that will allow everyone to determine whether changes are working for students, teachers, and the Commonwealth.

The evidence is clear that more money does not equal better educational performance. AIM insists the following accountability measures be part of any education funding reform:

• Fully implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission through a multi-year, fully funded revision to the Chapter 70 formula that will achieve adequacy and equity for all students.

• Maintain and enhance the state accountability system to ensure new funds go to those students who need them the most and are used effectively to close achievement gaps, set statewide and district targets for closing those gaps with annual reporting on progress, and collect and report on data related to college and career readiness.

• Add a new Chapter 70 enrollment category for Early College and Career Pathways to enable replication and expansion of these high-school reform strategies.

• Provide significant and supplemental funding for innovation and the implementation of best practices in underperforming schools.

• Enact Innovation Partnership Zone legislation to provide communities with a new tool for empowering schools and educators to address persistent low performance and encourage innovation.

John Regan is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

In the U.S., 150,000 tons of food is wasted every day.

This equals about a pound of food per person, or about a third of the daily calories that each American consumes. What may not be totally obvious when we throw out that banana with a brown spot on it, or the slightly mushy red pepper, is that all this food waste contributes to a much bigger problem in America — the waste of about 40% of country’s food production.

This shocking fact shared by the Center for EcoTechnology is a testament for just how serious the food-waste epidemic is.

In addition, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, wasted food is the single biggest occupant in American landfills. The food we throw out affects our lives in more ways than one, including our own financial resources and a bigger carbon footprint.

Thankfully, while food waste remains a huge problem in America and the world, more and more awareness is being brought to this subject, and more action is being taken to significantly reduce this problem. This includes organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a nonprofit dedicated solely to food rescue and distribution in Massachusetts.

Lovin’ Spoonfuls picks up food from more than 75 vendor partners in refrigerated trucks and serves more than 40 cities and towns across Massachusetts. It focuses primarily on perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, which are the most likely to be wasted, and provides meals to more than 30,000 people a week.

Aside from organizations like this, there are simple ways families can do their part to significantly reduce food waste — everything from planning meals for the week before going to the grocery store to freezing foods that won’t be eaten right away. Looking in the refrigerator and cabinets and cooking food already on hand — and saving leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day — are other habits that add up over 128 million American households.

Businesses are increasingly implementing food-waste reduction strategies as well — spurred in many cases by state regulation. The bottom line is, if everyone tries a little each day to help, significantly less food will be wasted and dumped into landfills.

While Massachusetts in general has been a national leader in addressing food waste, it is important that individuals do their part by implementing their own strategies. With the help of organizations like the Center for EcoTechnology and Lovin’ Spoonfuls, we can only hope those shocking food-waste numbers begin to go down in the next several decades.

Opinion

Opinion

By Christine Palmieri

September is National Recovery Month. ‘Recovery’ is a word that gets used a lot in the world of mental health and addiction services, sometimes so much so that I think we can easily lose sight of what it represents. In my role with the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), I often have the opportunity to talk to newly hired staff about the idea of recovery. We discuss what it means and what it can look like in the context of working with people who have experienced trauma, homelessness, psychiatric diagnosis, and substance problems.

When I ask new staff the question, “what does it mean to recover?” I frequently hear things like “getting better” or “getting back to where you were” or “having a better quality of life.” Although I tell staff there are no wrong answers to this question, secretly I think there are. They’re common and easy, but insufficient.

As with many things, I think it’s easier to talk about what recovery is by defining what it isn’t. For me, recovery isn’t a cure. It isn’t a finish line or a place people get to. It isn’t a goal that can be neatly summarized in a treatment plan. I believe recovery is a process that is unique and intimately personal to the individual going through it. Ultimately, though, I think the answer to the question “what does it mean to recover?” should be “it isn’t for me to say.”

I believe recovery is a process that is unique and intimately personal to the individual going through it.

As providers of services, or as loved ones, community members, and policy makers, I don’t believe it’s up to us to define what recovery means or looks like for people going through it. Each person needs to examine and define what it means to them. For the rest of us, I think the more important question is “what makes recovery possible?” When the question is posed this way, we are able to engage this idea of recovery in a much different and more productive way. This question offers the opportunity to share the responsibility and partner with those we support.

The analogy of a seedling is often used when describing this process of recovery, and one I use when I talk to our new hires about their roles and responsibilities as providers of service. Seeds are remarkable little things. For me, they represent unlimited potential. A seed no bigger than a grain of rice contains within it everything it needs to grow into a giant sequoia. But no seed can grow without the right environmental conditions. No amount of force or assertion of control can make a seed grow. It needs the right soil, the right amount of water, and the right amount of light.

In the same way, within each person who has experienced trauma, homelessness, psychiatric diagnosis, or problems with substances, I believe there lies unlimited potential for growth, and each person needs the right environment for the process of recovery to take place. As providers, loved ones, community members, and policy makers, we very often control that environment. Metaphorically, we provide the soil, the water and the light.

Soil is the place where recovery begins. It offers a place for the seed to grow roots, to gather strength, security, and safety. Soil is what keeps trees rooted tightly to the ground through storms. It is our responsibility to offer environments where people in recovery feel safe and secure, to try out new ways of coping and new ways of managing the difficulties and challenges that life presents to all of us.

Water provides a seedling with essential nourishment. We need to find ways to support people in recovery to discover what truly nourishes them. The work of recovery is hard. It requires taking risks and feeling uncomfortable. We cannot do the work of recovery for anyone else, but we can and should work to help people in recovery find the supportive relationships, meaningful roles, and reasons to do that hard work.

Light provides the energy necessary for growth. In recovery, I believe light is offered through the hope and understanding that every person has within them the potential to live a full and active life in the community, whatever that means for them. As providers, loved ones, community members, and policy makers, it is our role to shine the light of hope for people who have experienced discrimination, loss of power and control, and in many cases a loss of their identity. We hold this hope and offer this light because we know, without question, that recovery, however it is defined, is not only possible, but is happening, right now, all around us.

Christine Palmieri is vice president of the Division of Recovery and Housing at MHA.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

A so-called ‘beach party’ set up recently outside the State House by education funding advocates was a disrespectful and frivolous stunt carried out by people who should instead be focused on the well-being and economic futures of Massachusetts schoolchildren.

The point of the beach party, complete with beach balls and shaved ice with flavors such as ‘accountability slime lime,’ was to excoriate the Legislature for going on summer recess without passing a massive restructuring of the funding formula for public schools.

The fiscal 2020 budget Gov. Charlie Baker signed last month includes a $268 million increase in state assistance for K-12 education, but activists want a multi-year commitment to ramp up education spending and address gaps in the quality of education from one community to another. The beach party was the latest in a series of questionable antics perpetrated by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and allies who want billions of dollars in additional education spending with no accountability for results.

In May, Massachusetts Teachers Assoc. President Merrie Najimy posted a photo to Facebook of herself and three other women smiling and clutching fake pearl necklaces with a caption that read, “Alice Peisch, let go of the wealth and #FundOurFuture.”

Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, often wears pearls, and the prop suggested she could not understand the circumstances of poorer students because she lives in the wealthy suburb of Wellesley.

Members of the teachers union have also been observed at public meetings carrying blank checks to signal their distaste for any measurements to accompany additional spending.

The 3,500 member companies of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) who depend upon the public schools to prepare the workforce of the future support education reform that contains specific and measurable performance objectives. Anyone who owns or manages a business tracks return on investment, and the investment we make in our public schools and students should be no different.

The stakes in the debate are enormous, beginning with an estimated price tag in the neighborhood of $1 billion. The governor and the Massachusetts Legislature deserve credit for proceeding cautiously on education reform. u

John Regan is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Bringing the Message Home

When you talk to Kirk Jonah about his son Jack’s death from a heroin overdose and his work to educate and inspire people since that fateful day, you don’t sense anger, frustration, bitterness, or even embarrassment — emotions that are all perfectly understandable and probably there somewhere.

No, all you see is determination, which is exactly what is needed as this region and this country continues to battle one of the worst epidemics in history — the opioid epidemic.

One can argue forever how we got to this point with this epidemic, one that is killing tens of thousands of people a year, and it’s clear there is plenty of blame to go around — from the makers of prescription painkillers to the doctors who prescribe them carelessly, to people young and old who take them irresponsibly. But what’s really needed now, in addition to treatment of those who are addicted, is plain, old-fashioned talk about the need for everyone — from parents to young people — to make smart decisions.

And that’s exactly what Jonah provides.

As the story on page 10 details, Jack Jonah and his family became statistics back in the spring of 2016, when Jack was found dead in his room of an apparent heroin overdose, a tragedy that seemed to come out of nowhere because there were no easily recognizable signs that he was using and abusing the drug.

Those statistics are related to the number of overdose deaths in this country, and statistics related to the number of families torn apart by such tragedies.

But Kirk Jonah was never content to be merely a statistic, and he wasn’t about to let his son become one, either.

Indeed, they have become so much more than that. They have become inspirations and, yes, leaders in the ongoing fight to stem the tide of substance abuse and overdose deaths by bringing others into the fight.

That’s what Kirk Jonah will tell you he does. He brings people into the fight by compelling them to recognize that choices have to be made, and they need to be smart ones.

These decisions involve everything from how and where parents should store their prescription drugs to whether and how young people should tell the parents or other loved ones of someone they know is on a collision course with tragedy about what they know.

This work started with speaking engagements before a wide variety of audiences — from smaller gatherings at schools to a huge audience at Mercy Hospital’s Caritas Gala — and it has expanded to a foundation and fundraising activities. Soon, there will be a movie made about Jack Jonah, his family, and the work to prevent more tragedies like this.

The working title, from what we’ve gathered, is Making Courage Contagious, which is exactly what Kirk — and Jack — have been doing over the past three years.

A key part of Kirk Jonah’s presentations to the groups he addresses is the death certificate mailed to him several weeks after son’s death. It’s a powerful document, especially when one focuses on the words written above the cause-of-death line: acute heroin intoxication.

Those are words that, as we said at the top, should induce anger, frustration, and embarrassment. What they’ve produced instead is determination — as in determination not to let another parent receive a similar piece of mail.

At this time of crisis and epidemic, that’s what this region, and this country, needs most.

Opinion

Opinion

By James T. Brett and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal

Core to the premise of the so-called American Dream is the idea that, if you work hard over the course of your career, you’ll get to enjoy a secure retirement. Unfortunately, for far too many Americans, that simply is not the case.

Consider this: nearly half of U.S. households with people age 55 and older have no savings for retirement. And almost 50% of private-sector workers — some 58 million people — do not even have access to a retirement plan through their employer, including small-business workers, self-employed workers, and gig workers.

Yet a typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement earnings, and that number is projected to drop to less than 28% within two years. At the same time, people are living longer. According to the World Economic Forum, a baby born in 2007 stands to live to be 103 — 36 years beyond Social Security’s current full retirement age. To further complicate matters, the student-debt crisis is also having an impact, with younger workers putting off saving for retirement because they are struggling to pay off student loans.

So how do we address this problem and ensure that all Americans are prepared for their golden years? There are several steps we can take that would have a tremendous impact.

First, we must continue to preserve tax incentives that encourage individuals to save for retirement. Allowing workers to contribute pre-tax wages to a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan is a simple and proven way to encourage savings.

Second, it is critical that we take action to increase financial literacy — and that needs to start at a young age. It’s important that young people appreciate how student debt will affect them later in life, that younger workers understand just how much they need to be saving to be prepared for retirement, and that all employees are aware of the various tools available to them to invest in their own future.

… a typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement earnings, and that number is projected to drop to less than 28% within two years.

Finally, we must take steps to expand access to and increase participation in retirement-savings products and plans. In particular, we must make it easier for small businesses to offer retirement-savings plans by eliminating barriers for such businesses to band together in multiple-employer plans, thereby simplifying administration and lowering fees. It is also important to provide incentives for businesses to offer plans with automatic enrollment, and to require them to allow long-term part-time workers to have access to retirement benefits.

Congress must take bold action to bolster retirement savings and ensure that all Americans have access to the tools they need to save for their golden years. This crisis presents an opportunity for leaders in Washington to work collaboratively toward bipartisan solutions. The good news is that there already are bipartisan, bicameral efforts underway in Congress to pass legislation to bolster retirement savings.

The business community and our leaders in government must continue to work together to address and resolve the retirement-savings crisis facing our country. We owe it to the millions of Americans who work hard each and every day to keep our economy growing. We are hopeful that Congress will indeed take action on this important issue in the coming months so that all Americans will be able to realize the dream of a well-earned, secure retirement.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of the New England Council, a non-partisan, regional business association. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal represents Massachusetts’ First Congressional District and is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Opinion

Editorial

We’ll probably never know how far the talks went between Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts concerning the acquisition of the $2 billion casino in Everett supposedly ready to open any time now.

We’ll just say that we’re glad — and the state should be glad, and the city of Springfield should be glad, and Everett should be glad — that those talks are over, and that MGM will stand pat (yes, that’s an industry term) and not pursue that property.

Had those talks continued and a sale been forged … well, let’s just say we don’t want to go there. And, again, we’re glad the state doesn’t have to. The status quo is working quite well in Springfield, thank you, and if there’s one thing the state and its Gaming Commission don’t need to bring to the picture right now, is question marks — or more question marks, to be more precise.

In case you missed it — and it was hard to miss — word leaked that Wynn Resorts, which is now licensed to operate a casino in Everett under the Encore brand, was in what were called “very preliminary discussions” about a sale of that property to MGM.

Media outlets across the Commonwealth then printed stories laden with conjecture about whether the sale should take place and what might happen if it did. Most of those quoted blasted the concept and projected that it would create something approaching chaos at a time when the state needed just the opposite from its still-fledgling casino industry.

“This isn’t a Monopoly game,” former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a key author of the state’s gaming law, told the Boston Globe as news of the talks broke, adding that a sale of the Boston property, which would force MGM to divest itself of the Springfield facility, was far from a slam dunk. Carlo DeMaria, mayor of Everett, went further, saying, “it’s not going to happen.”

Turns out he was right, because amid that wave of negative commentary and gloom-and-doom conjecture, MGM announced that it was playing the hand it was dealt.

Whether that’s the best move for company, we can’t say. But we can say it’s the best move for the state and this region.

MGM is a known commodity, but whichever entity would buy the Springfield casino is not, and while there are plenty of good casino operators out there, we don’t need an unknown commodity at this point.

Especially in Greater Springfield. Communities, businesses, nonprofits, and other constituencies have forged solid working relationships and partnerships with MGM. They haven’t forged them with a casino on Main Street, but instead with a company, one that has come to be a trusted stakeholder in this region.

So we’re glad MGM is not seeking potentially greener pastures in Boston.

But while this threat has passed, we have to wonder about how it materialized in the first place. The fact that Wynn Resorts fought a long, hard, very expensive battle to open a casino in Everett and then explored a sale just as it was set to cross the finish line is a head scratcher, to be sure.

But there is a lot we don’t know about this industry, and maybe a sale makes sense on some levels, especially if Wynn, which desperately wanted into the Massachusetts market, is now intent on getting out.

Just not a sale to MGM.

Now that MGM has backed away, it’s time for the Gaming Commission to determine whether Wynn is still the best fit for the Boston market, and if it isn’t, the state should find another player.

It’s also time to move forward with the next big order of business — sports gambling. As it did with gaming itself, the state is dragging its feet on sports gambling, losing revenue to neighboring Rhode Island with each day that passes.

Thankfully, the state, and Springfield, won’t have to deal with a change of ownership at the casino in Springfield’s South End.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

As the Roman philosopher Seneca observed, “omni fine initium novum,” or, “every new beginning comes from the end of another.” 

As the Associated Industries of Massachusetts prepares to write a new and exciting chapter in its distinguished history, I am reminded at every moment of the wisdom, generosity, and quiet determination with which my predecessor, Rick Lord, has paved the road before me.

Rick never lost sight of where he came from, and he never forgot that trust and respect are the ultimate currency of public policy and service.

To the members of AIM and especially to the board of directors, I gratefully accept your commission to lead this organization, supporting the dreams and aspirations of Massachusetts employers. We must keep as our guiding principle the fact that economic growth remains the only effective method of achieving the social equity that makes our Commonwealth a great place to live and work.

There has never been a more pressing need for businesses to work together with the sort of common purpose that drove 28 visionary companies to create Associated Industries of Massachusetts 104 years ago. AIM welcomes all employers and dedicates itself to serving the needs of the full range of Massachusetts companies working to provide the hope of a better life to our friends and neighbors.

We remain committed to the principals of diversity, equity, and inclusion — on our board, on our staff, and throughout our membership. We assert unequivocally that AIM will be an association in the truest sense of the word, providing an opportunity for everyone — especially those who have historically been ignored — a full voice.

Everything we do at AIM is done to help businesses unlock their full potential. We fiercely advocate for positive public policy that helps to create a strong economy.

We empower businesses with the information, tools, and resources needed to successfully navigate a fast-paced, complex business world. We foster connections, networks, and the flow of ideas between people and businesses.

We believe that business can be a positive force for change in helping to create a better, more prosperous society. And the best part is, we’re just getting started.

This article is adapted from John Regan’s recent address at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts annual meeting, at which Regan stepped into the role of president and CEO.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

Evidence from states that have imposed a surtax on incomes of more than $1 million shows that the policy causes irreparable harm to the economy while generating far less tax revenue than promised. A millionaires tax will cause the same harm in Massachusetts.

Lawmakers have refiled a proposal to amend the state Constitution to impose a graduated income tax, adding a 4% tax (representing an 80% increase in the personal income-tax rate) on all incomes over $1 million. The amendment would dictate that the revenue be spent on transportation and education.

A graduated income tax would eviscerate the small, family-owned businesses that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy. The surtax would take an estimated $2 billion from some 17,000 Main Street businesses and others that pay taxes at the individual rate and who would otherwise use the money to hire additional employers or expand their companies.

These companies are already drowning in more than $1.5 billion in new taxes and fees to pay for a financial shortfall in the Medicaid program and to fund the new paid family and medical leave program.

How do we know that surtaxes don’t work? Because our neighbors in Connecticut just drove their economy off a cliff by raising taxes three times in the past 10 years. Connecticut in 2009 added a 6.5% income-tax bracket for those earning more than $500,000 per year. The state followed up with a comprehensive $1.5 billion tax increase in 2011 to deal with a budget shortfall. A final round of tax increases took effect in 2015.

A graduated income tax would eviscerate the small, family-owned businesses that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy. The surtax would take an estimated $2 billion from some 17,000 Main Street businesses and others that pay taxes at the individual rate and who would otherwise use the money to hire additional employers or expand their companies.

According to information compiled by Pew Charitable Trusts, tax revenue for all 50 states is averaging 6.3% higher than it was at the start of the 2008 recession. Connecticut tax revenue, on the other hand, is only 3.8% higher, despite the three tax increases.

Once the economic heavyweight of New England, Connecticut is the only state in the nation which has yet to recover the jobs lost during the economic downturn. In addition, the state has seen an outmigration of residents since 2013 and the loss of major financial investors. Data from the Internal Revenue Service showed a spike in residents earning more than $200,000 per year leaving the state in 2015, and studies conducted by Connecticut state agencies and commissions have confirmed the loss of higher-income residents to other states.

Income-surtax laws have failed in other states as well. Within three years of Maryland enacting its millionaire tax, 40% of the state’s seven-figure earners were gone from the tax rolls — and so was $1.7 billion from the state tax base.

Similarly, in 2010, Boston College researchers released a report on the migration of wealthy households to and from New Jersey. They concluded that wealthier New Jersey households did in fact consider the high-earner taxes when deciding whether to move to or remain in New Jersey. From 1999 to 2003 — before the millionaires tax was imposed — there was a net influx of $98 billion in household wealth into the state. After the tax was implemented, an increasing number of wealthy families left the state, resulting in a loss of $70 billion in wealth.

Many of the business owners who fled Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey moved to states that have worked to reduce, rather than boost, taxes, including North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee.

John Regan is executive vice president of Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Opinion

‘How are they doing?’

That’s the question that seemingly everyone is asking these days, with the ‘they’ obviously being MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino complex in Springfield’s South End. Everyone wants to know how they’re doing because this is the biggest business development in this part of the state in who knows how long, the expectations were and are sky-high, and the stakes — for MGM, the state, the city, and the region — are equally high.

And people want to know because, well, it’s not clear just how well they’re doing so far. The revenue numbers, meaning GGR (gross gambling revenues), are not on pace to come close to what MGM told the state they would be for the first year of operation at this facility — just over $400 million. Indeed, over the first six months or so of operation, MGM Springfield was averaging just over $20 million per month. You can do the math.

But beyond the revenues, there are other signs that perhaps this casino is not performing as well as all or most us thought it would and hope it will.

Going all the way back to opening day, the traffic, the lines to get in, the crowds of people downtown just haven’t materialized. Yes, there have been some big days (usually Saturday nights) when it’s difficult to maneuver around downtown Springfield, but not as many as we were led to believe.

Thus the question, ‘how are they doing?’

It’s a difficult question to answer because there are many ways to answer it, and aside from those really qualified to answer that query, no one truly knows.

More to the point, and Mike Mathis said this to BusinessWest for a recent interview, it’s still early in the game when it comes to both gaming in Massachusetts and MGM Springfield, and perhaps much too early to be drawing conclusions about how MGM will fare even this year, let alone in the years to come.

He’s right. These early months can tell us something about how MGM Springfield is going to perform over the long term, but they’re not going to tell us everything. Several of these first months have come in late fall and winter, a typically slow period in this region for both business and tourism.

Meanwhile, MGM Springfield is still very much in the process of trying to figure out what works in this market and what doesn’t, and how to achieve maximum efficiency for this multi-faceted operation. Mathis and others at MGM call this period ‘ramping up,’ and they project it might take three years to get all the way up the ramp.

But there are many reasons for optimism, starting with a change of season and the likelihood that MGM will make far better use of its vast and unique outdoor facilities. There’s also the emerging ROAR! Comedy Club and a multi-year partnership agreement recently inked with the Boston Red Sox that will make MGM Springfield the team’s ‘official and exclusive resort casino’ (replacing Foxwoods in Connecticut) and home to its January Winter Weekend.

Finally, when it comes to the ‘how are they doing?’ question, the most important aspect of the answer relates not to revenues for the state‚ although those are important, but impact on the city of Springfield and the surrounding region.

In the years and then months leading up to the casino’s opening, area officials — and those of us at BusinessWest — said MGM was going to be big piece of the puzzle, not the entire picture. It was going to be a big contributor to the overall vibrancy in the region, but just one of many potential contributors.

Overall, we expected the casino to be a catalyst, not a cure-all, a force that would help put Springfield on the map and help bring people to that spot that on the map.

Maybe all the revenues are not as solid as we hoped they would be, but thus far, the casino is doing most everything we anticipated it might do.

Opinion

Opinion

 By Associated Industries of Massachusetts

Late winter and early spring is high workplace gambling season. College basketball’s March Madness playoff brackets mean many workers will be talking about, gambling on, and even watching the games at work. 

What does workplace gambling look like? Betting pools, online betting, cellphone calls, and texting are some of the common methods employees use to gamble during the workday. All this may lead to a significant reduction in job performance by some employees.

On the other hand, many employers regard employee gambling as a harmless distraction that creates a little excitement, a diversion from the humdrum of the long winter and workday routines. Most employees treat it as a lark that, win or lose, will not impact them very much. In most workplaces, the single-pool proceeds are relatively small dollars, ranging anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to perhaps a few thousand.

That said, workplace gambling is a big deal and likely to get bigger. The American Gaming Assoc. estimates that employees may bet up to $10 billion alone on the college basketball tournament. And, by the way, sports betting remains illegal in Massachusetts. 

If you are concerned about workplace gambling or feel that your current policies are insufficient, here are some questions to consider:

• Does gambling disrupt the workplace? Is the gambling behavior interfering with production? Are arguments between employees over games and gambling taking place? Is bad blood festering over unpaid debts? Is there a spike in wallet or purse thefts among co-workers? 

• Are you seeing betting take up an unreasonable amount of work time? Are workers leaving their work stations throughout the day to discuss gambling? Are they gathering during work time to discuss betting options?

• Are gambling employees asking co-workers or the company for loans on wages or from 401Ks, or are there delays in repaying debts? 

• Are your supervisors running the gambling pool, raising disparate treatment issues across the business?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may want to consider establishing a gambling policy.

There are a number of options:

• Adopt a no-gambling policy. Define gambling or the type of behavior that is restricted. Employers are free to establish such a policy. The key factor, as always, will be how consistently will it be enforced by your supervisors.

• Determine what constitutes appropriate disciplinary action against any employee who violates the policy.

• Consider adopting a limited no-gambling policy. One method would be to prohibit gambling above a certain dollar figure or value. Such a policy would recognize that small-stakes gambling such as a few dollars or a lunch is reasonable and will be tolerated even though it remains illegal under state law. The problem — will employees disclose they are doing it? There is also the question of determining what is a reasonable dollar value threshold and how to enforce it.

While it is unlikely any company would face any serious civil or criminal liability for a small-time gambling pool, if its operation makes some employees feel uncomfortable, it may make sense to end the practice as soon as you become aware of it, or before it gets going. Whatever policy you choose to adopt, make sure it is one that is enforceable for your workplace. 

Opinion

Opinion

By Katie Holahan

Healthcare spending in Massachusetts grew less than a key state benchmark and less than the national average during 2017, but employers and workers are not yet seeing the benefits.

The annual Healthcare Cost Trends Report issued this month by the state Health Policy Commission (HPC) indicates that total per-capita healthcare expenditures in Massachusetts rose 1.6% during 2016, significantly less than the 3.6% benchmark set by the commission. The Massachusetts growth rate also fell below the national rate — 3.1% — for the eighth consecutive year.

But the health-insurance premiums paid by Massachusetts employers and employees increased 5.8% in 2017, leaving the average total premium for employer-based coverage among the highest in the country at $21,000 per year for a family plan and $7,000 for a single employee. These figures do not include out-of-pocket spending such as co-payments and deductible spending, which grew 5.9% in 2017 for commercially insured enrollees.

Premiums for smaller employers increased 6.9% and are now the second-highest in the country, according to the HPC. Fifty-seven percent of employees in small businesses are enrolled in high-deductible health plans.

Part of the reason employers are not seeing more benefit from moderating health spending may be the fact that commercial insurers in Massachusetts pay higher prices to providers than Medicare pays for the same services. For hospital inpatient care, average prices among the three largest Massachusetts insurers were 57% higher than Medicare prices for similar patients. Commercial insurers also paid much more for typical outpatient services, including brain MRIs, emergency-department visits, and physician office visits.

Premiums for smaller employers increased 6.9% and are now the second-highest in the country, according to the HPC. Fifty-seven percent of employees in small businesses are enrolled in high-deductible health plans.

The HPC attributed much of the overall increase health-care expenditures to spending on prescription drugs (4.1%) and hospital outpatient services (4.9%). The commission also found that medical bills can vary as much as 30% from one hospital or medical group to another with no measurable different in quality of care.

The HPC makes 11 policy recommendations to continue health spending moderation. Among the highlights:

• The Commonwealth should focus on reducing unnecessary utilization and increasing the provision of coordinated care in high-value, low-cost settings.

• Policymakers should advance specific, data-driven interventions to address the pressing issue of continued provider price variation in the coming year.

• The Commonwealth should continue to promote the increased adoption of alternative payment methods.

• The Commonwealth should authorize the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to establish a process that allows for a rigorous review of certain high-cost drugs, increasing the ability of MassHealth to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers for additional supplemental rebates and outcomes-based contracts, and increasing public transparency and public oversight for pharmaceutical manufacturers, medical-device companies, and pharmacy benefit managers.

Katie Holahan is vice president of Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

Just over a decade ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, Difference Makers. And in many ways, the past 10 years have been a celebration of the many different ways groups and individuals can make a difference in their community, and this region as a whole.

Indeed, those making their way to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke have included a sheriff of Hampden County, a police chief in Holyoke, the president of UMass Amherst, the founder of Rays of Hope, the director of Junior Achievement, the co-founder of Link to Libraries, the creators of Valley Venture Mentors … the list goes on.

And this year’s additions to that list  provide still more evidence that there are countless ways to make a difference, and they all need to be celebrated:

• Let’s start with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. This Hatfield-based agency, launched in the early ’80s, is a Difference Maker on many levels, from the 11.6 million pounds of food and 9.6 million meals it provides to area shelters and soup kitchens, to its Coalition to End Hunger, which is raising awareness of the problem, attacking the stigma attached to it, and advocating for those in need. For almost 40 years, the Food Bank has been answering the call.

• The same is true of Joe Peters, a businessman who has always had an influence that has extended far beyond the walls of Universal Plastics. It has extended across Chicopee, the city he grew up and still lives in today, with initiatives such as the so-called ‘sandwich ministry,’ a program he helped start to feed the homeless in that city. And it has extended all the way to Guayape, Honduras, where he helped bring a new ambulance to that hurricane-ravaged village. He has always looked for new ways to step in and change lives for the better.

• As has Peter Gagliardi, the long-time president and CEO of Way Finders. He has spent the past 45 years working in the broad realm of housing and the past quarter-century at Way Finders, where he has greatly expanded the mission and, while doing so, has changed lives and helped change the course of entire neighborhoods through the power of collaboration.

• Frederick and Marjorie Hurst have always been catalysts for positive change within their community, especially through the newsmagazine they created called An African American Point of View, a name that speaks volumes about its mission and importance to the community. It blends community news with often-unsparing commentary, and speaks with a powerful voice, just like its founders.

• The Springfield Museums, as a cultural institution, is a different kind of Difference Maker. For more than 160 years, it has helped bring art, science, history, and memories to visitors from across this region and far outside it, a mission that entered a new dimension with the opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in 2017. Collectively, the Museums have helped put Springfield on the map and make it far more of a destination.

• Meanwhile, Carla Cosenzi, co-president of the TommyCar Auto Group, has found her own ways to make a difference. First, as a successful business owner and, therefore, role model and mentor to many young women. But also has a warrior in the battle against cancer, the disease that claimed the life of her father, through the Tommy Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Golf Tournament.

As we said, there are no limits on the ways that an individual or group can make a difference here in Western Massachusetts, or in Guayape, Honduras for that matter. That’s what we’ve been celebrating for the past decade, and the celebration continues with the class of 2019.

Opinion

Opinion

By Tom Flanagan

Burnout among the nation’s physicians has become so pervasive that a new paper published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc. has deemed the condition a public health crisis.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout.

The paper includes directives aimed at curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major healthcare organization, proactive mental-health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records. 

In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians surveyed said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout. Burnout is a syndrome involving one or more of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession. 

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician wellbeing is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said Dr. Alain Chaoui, a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.  “We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.” 

By 2025, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that there will be a nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven away from medicine or out of practice because of the effects of burnout. Further complicating matters is the cost an employer must incur to recruit and replace a physician, estimated at between $500,000 and $1,000.000.

The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a Veterans Affairs physician and Harvard faculty member. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.” 

The full report is available at www.massmed.org.

Tom Flanagan is Media Relations manager for the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Opinion

Opinion

By Rick Lord

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and its 4,000 member companies last week called upon the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to end to the two-year assessment imposed on employers last year to close a financial gap at the state’s MassHealth insurance program for low-income residents.

AIM believes the assessment is no longer necessary because employers last year paid tens of millions of dollars more than anticipated under the levy. Businesses are on track to contribute some $519 million by the time the assessment sunsets at the end of this year instead of the $400 million envisioned under the 2017 legislation.

At the same time, enrollment in MassHealth has fallen as the Baker administration has initiated steps to ensure that only people eligible for benefits receive them. And state tax collections have exceeded targets over the past several months, putting the state on firmer financial footing.

“The conditions that led to the imposition of the surcharge no longer exist. Employers who have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in assessments believe it is fair to look at ending the surcharge in year two,” said John Regan, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs at AIM.

The Legislature passed the assessment in July 2017 minus a set of structural reforms proposed by Gov. Baker to place the MassHealth/Medicaid program on a firm financial footing. The assessment fell most heavily upon companies in which employees elect to use MassHealth rather than the employer-sponsored health plan.

An existing assessment called the employer medical assistance contribution increased from $51 to $77 per employee. Employers also were required to pay up to $750 for each worker who receives public health benefits.

Employers may request a waiver from the fees if they prove a hardship. Of 246 such waiver requests, administration officials said they have allowed 99.

Gov. Baker originally proposed a $2,000-per-employee assessment upon companies at which at least 80% of full-time worker equivalents did not take the company’s offer of health insurance, and that did not make a minimum contribution of a $4,950 annual contribution for each full-time worker. That proposal encountered significant opposition from the business community.

AIM member employers are proud to lead the nation in providing healthcare coverage to their employees. Sixty-five percent of Bay State companies offer health-insurance coverage to their workers, compared with 56% of employers nationwide. A full 100% of Massachusetts employers with 200 or more employees offer coverage. 

Employers stand ready to work with policymakers to make long-term structural reforms to both the MassHealth program and the commercial insurance markets to make the financing of healthcare for Massachusetts residents sustainable.

Rick Lord is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

UMass Football has a new coach — now former Florida State Offensive Coordinator Walt Bell.

What the program doesn’t have, at least from our vantage point, is a clear path out of what seems to be some very thick weeds. Indeed, the program, which moved into what’s known as the FSB, the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision, in 2012, seems to be mired in quicksand, with poor records, seemingly poor support from fans, and a distinct lack of any light at the end of the tunnel.

A new coach might help, but we believe the problems run deeper than that — deep enough to prompt discussion about whether this move to the FSB can someday achieve the lofty goals set years ago.

And that’s where we need to start, with those goals.

They were broad, and included a winning program that would bring prestige, revenue, and perhaps even some top-shelf students to the campus in Amherst.

Thus far, the move to the FSB has achieved little if any of that. On the revenue side, for example, after losing money in 2016 and 2015, university athletics finished in the black in 2017, to the tune of roughly $500,000. But those numbers pale in comparison to the major football powerhouses, and as expenses continue to rise, we wonder how long university athletics, and especially the football program, can operate in the black.

Meanwhile, far from attracting new fans, the program seems to be alienating alums and supporters, first by playing home games at Gillette stadium (a strategy that was thankfully shelved, for the most part), and then by putting together schedules of games against opponents that no one knows or cares about.

Indeed, as a member of the Mid-America conference for a few seasons, UMass played the likes of Buffalo, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Toledo, and Akron. And, now, as an independent after leaving the MAC in 2015, the Minutemen play teams like Charlotte, Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Florida Atlantic. None of these teams resonate with alums and residents of the region, and they won’t, even if UMass plays them for the next 20 years.

Yes, Georgia, Boston College, and Brigham Young University were on this year’s schedule (BYU was even a home game), but the respective scores were 66-7, 55-21, and 35-16.

OK, this is not a sports publication, and this bit of commentary is not about how bad the UMass defense was. Well, maybe it’s a little about that, and the defense was really bad, giving up almost 43 points a game.

No, it’s a business publication, and in most all respects, UMass football isn’t a sport, it’s a business — a business that has yet to find its way and probably needs a new strategic plan, in addition to a new CEO (head coach).

But determining which direction to go in is difficult. One can make a logical case that maybe the best course for the university is to go back down a division and put some traditional, or at least geographic, rivalries back on the schedule — teams like New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, and maybe Harvard and Holy Cross, if those schools are so inclined.

But going backward isn’t an appealing option.

Still, going forward at this pace doesn’t appear to make sense, either. To really be successful within the FSB, the school will have to continue to make the huge investments in facilities needed to attract top players.

And we wonder out loud whether it will be worth it. After all, the school continues to rise in the USA Today rankings and overall prestige as a research university, and it would be very fair to say that none of that upward movement has anything whatsoever to do with the football program.

Like we said, UMass football has a new coach. What is doesn’t appear to have is a sense of direction regarding the future.

It’s definitely time to get one.

Opinion

Opinion

By Jennifer Connelly

There’s no doubt that talking, in some form, is one of our favorite pastimes. But within our close circles of family, some things that are important to talk about between generations are not being discussed at all — critical things like money and how to manage it.

More than 75% of kids report that their parents don’t discuss money and personal finance with them, probably for several reasons. For parents struggling with their own personal finances, they may not feel educated or financially empowered enough to be a mentor, or they may not have time. It may take a small crisis such as misusing a credit card or phone plan for a parent to recognize certain financial basics are a must in the short term. But still, they may not fully realize how important ongoing and broad financial education is to preventing increasing financial struggles, protecting against cycles of financial instability and poverty, and maximizing a child’s chance for financial success.

So it’s not surprising that last year, a much-touted global study by the Organization for Economic Development Corp. showed that one in five teenage students in the U.S. lack basic financial literacy skills, lagging behind 14 other nations. But most young people will face significant financial decisions before their 20th birthday. And the number and complexity of financial decisions they’re faced with is growing all the time: student loans, credit-card options, insurance, mortgages, investing, and entrepreneurship, to name a few.

Student loans may be the first major financial decision many young people face. In 2018, the U, S. Department of Education reported that student loan debt in the U.S. was over $1.4 trillion. In Massachusetts, 60% of college students graduate with debt averaging over $31,000, and default rates are significant.

Also, the increased use of costly, ‘quick-fix’ financial options by young people — such as payday loans, pawn shops, and rent-to-own stores — is concerning.

The consequences of overwhelming debt and poor financial decision making can be grave, including lack of ability to pursue educational, job, and residential opportunities; bad credit resulting in a lifetime of higher interest rates; job loss; bankruptcy; extreme psychological stress; and physical and emotional strain. However, most states do not require schools to teach young people much about the financial world they will face and the skills they need to engage and succeed economically. 

Personal financial-literacy education (PFLE) includes the basics of financial products, the influencers and consequences of financial decision making, and the necessity of personal financial planning. The call for all students to be taught this crucial preparatory subject is growing louder, often coming from young people themselves who often say they wish this had been taught in their school.

The logic and effectiveness of teaching high-school students PFLE is solid: financial literacy leads to better personal-finance behavior. Many studies demonstrate people with higher levels of financial literacy make better personal-finance decisions. A 2014 study commissioned by the Federal Reserve showed that mandated personal-finance education in high school improved the credit scores and reduced the default rates of young adults. And it is well-established that those who are financially illiterate are less likely to have a checking account, rainy-day emergency fund, or retirement plan, or to own stocks; they are more likely to use payday loans, pay only credit-card minimums, have high-cost mortgages, and have higher debt and credit-delinquency levels.

Government and business leaders perennially focused on the state’s fiscal and economic health should care that financial illiteracy is currently the norm. Also, for all the talk in Massachusetts about addressing economic inequality, practical, viable solutions are in short supply. Requiring PFLE is a win for everyone.

Jennifer Connelly is president of Junior Achievement of Western Mass. This commentary is supported by the agency board’s officers, Albert Kasper, Phil Goncalves, and Nicole Denette.

Opinion

Opinion

By Cheryl Fasano

Workplaces that welcome the talents of all people, including people with disabilities, are a critical component in efforts to build an inclusive community and a strong economy. In my role as president and CEO of MHA, I see the impact that doing meaningful work can have on those we serve. Our participants include people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, people dealing with the life-changing effects of a stroke, people struggling with their mental wellness, and those with other disabilities.

This topic is timely because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This annual observance educates the public about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy leads the observance nationally, but its true spirit grows from local communities through the individual determination of people who overcome barriers and do meaningful work. It also grows from the vision of employers who provide access and reasonable accommodations so persons with disabilities can contribute to their organizations and our economy as part of the workforce.

As a local, nonprofit provider of residential and support services, MHA works with people who are impacted by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance use, and homelessness. For those whose disabilities are not so severe and medically challenged, MHA does its part to ensure that participants who want to work are ready to work. Consider two examples.

Erik, who suffered brain injury as a child, works at the CVS store in Ludlow. He has a job coach who guides him, but Erik does the work himself — as he has consistently and reliably more than 20 years. Work is part of his identity, and he will tell you he is proud to have a job. Erik resides at an MHA residential home. Our staff ensures he is well rested, eats a healthy breakfast, and is dressed in his work clothes and ready for his shift at CVS.

After Allen sustained a serious injury, he was prescribed opioid pain killers. He became addicted, and when couldn’t get more pills, as too often happens, he resorted to heroin. An overdose left him with acquired brain injury, but with support from MHA, he is making steady progress. In time, he may be able to ‘graduate’ from residential care and live independently. That is the goal. One step toward that goal is a job. Allen is just a few short weeks away from starting to work again, something he has not done in recent years. He is ready to work.

MHA also has participants who work for nonprofits as volunteers, serve meals at Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen, and clean at East Longmeadow Public Library and the Zoo in Forest Park. While they are not paid, they do meaningful work. They also make social connections, learn transferable skills, and contribute to organizations that gain from having committed, loyal, pleasant, and productive workers.

MHA encourages local businesses to consider offering employment opportunities to those we serve. Our program participants are ready to work — are you ready to hire? If your organization can provide an opportunity for someone who is ready to work, contact Kimberley Lee, MHA’s vice president of Resource Development and Branding, at (413) 233-5343 or [email protected]

Cheryl Fasano is president and CEO of MHA.

Opinion

Editorial

Sept. 17 was a huge day for Springfield and this region. It was, as they say, a ground-breaking moment, both literally and figuratively.

As for the literal part of that equation, ground was broken for the $14 million Educare early education school to be constructed adjacent to the Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College, and operated by Holyoke, Chicopee Springfield Head Start. This is the 24th Educare School to be built in the United States and the only one in Massachsetts. This was a typical ground-breaking ceremony with a host of local and state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Karen Polito.

As for the figurative part, this development is potentially ground-breaking on a number of levels. Educare represents what is truly cutting edge when it comes to practices in early education, and Educare Springfield represents an enormous opportunity for city residents to help break the cycle of poverty that has existed for decades.

Educare, which represents a national collaboration between the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Ounce of Prevention Fund, and hundreds of other public-private partners across the country, offers an early education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty. This model, which involves a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age five, incorporates embedded and ongoing professional development of teachers, intensive family engagement, and high-quality teaching practices, and utilizes data to advance outcomes for students in the program.

In other words it focuses on all three of the critical elements involved on the early-education process: Children, their families, and their educators. And all are equally important.

The students? Their participation in this program is obvious. Study after study has shown the importance of early education in setting young children on a course for life-long learning and providing them a far better chance to stay on that course. The year-long, all-day model translates into a more comprehensive — and more impactful — learning experience.

As for families, they are also an integral part of the early education process. Parents must become invested in the process and in their child’s education, and the Educare model ensures that this is the case.

And the educators? They are often the forgotten piece in this equation. Historically underpaid and seemingly underappreciated, early education teachers have a vital role in putting young children on a path to life-long learning. Ongoing professional development is an important component in this process.

Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, a long-time supporter and advocates for early education, played a lead role in making the Educare center a reality. But there were many other supporters as well, including the the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts; the MassMutual Foundation; Berkshire Bank; MassDevelopment; MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC) and their affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund; the George Kaiser Family Foundation; Florence Bank; Capital One Commercial Banking; and anonymous donors.

All these businesses and agencies understand the importance of early education, not only to the children and to the families, but to the city of Springfield and the entire region. As we’ve said on many occasions, early education is an education issue, but it is also an economic development issue.

And that’s why this is a ground-breaking development for this area, in all kinds of ways.

Opinion

Opinion

By Kathleen Scoble

This November, voters will make one of the most critical decisions regarding the future of patient care in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when they vote on Question 1, which would institute government-mandated nurse staffing levels at all hospitals statewide. On the surface, it might appear that using legislation to set registered-nurse-to-patient ratios would benefit patients, nurses, and hospitals, but that is not the case.

If approved, the law would require every hospital to adopt rigid registered nurse-to-patient ratios at all times — without consideration of a hospital’s size or location, and regardless of individual patients’ specific care needs. If this legislation is enacted, the impact will be devastating to hospitals, to the quality and safety of patient care, and to the much-respected role of the professional nurse.

Legislating nurse-staffing ratios is an illogical, unproven approach to providing nursing care to hospitalized patients. In essence, this practice broadly assumes that professional nurses and their nursing leadership are incapable of determining and providing the levels of nursing care required by the patients in their care at any given day or time. It also assumes that lawmakers know better how to care for patients than the professionals to whom these patients entrust their lives.

A far deeper concern is that, if nurse staffing ratios are enacted, nurses will be rendered powerless to step in and do what they know is right — what they know is needed — in caring for patients. A nurse will not be permitted to exceed the legislated nurse-staffing level by assuming the care of another patient arriving on the unit, even if the nurse determines that it is feasible and necessary to do so. How can that be considered safe or high-quality care?

Professional nurses are prepared and committed to coordinating and providing the care of seriously ill patients. I hope to give voters the assurance that nurses do not need a government-regulated staffing ratio to provide excellent care. As the dean of a long-standing and well-respected nursing program, I can confidently report that nurses are educated to be flexible, quick, and competent thinkers, and are capable of independent decision making based on the immediate situation and the circumstances presented.

Finally, it is projected that legislating staffing ratios will drive up costs, which would force hospitals to make deep cuts to critical programs, close patient-care units, and in some cases close down. This legislation could be especially devastating for communities with small hospitals, especially in rural locations where resources are less accessible. Patients in these areas might be forced to travel farther and wait longer for medical care. Again, how can that be considered safe or high-quality care for the citizens of the Commonwealth?

Your vote on this is critically important. I ask you to join Massachusetts nurses, hospitals, and leading healthcare organizations in opposing this costly and unproven proposal. Please vote no on Question 1.

Kathleen Scoble, Ed.D., MA, M.Ed., RN, is dean of the School of Nursing at Elms College.

Opinion

Editorial

What’s in a name — or a brand?

Sometimes, very little, especially when it comes to government agencies, state or federal offices, or administrative programs. Changes in names and titles undertaken to eliminate confusion and generate progress rarely succeed in those missions.

We don’t believe that will the case with the state’s decision to rebrand, if you will, its many workforce-oriented agencies under the umbrella name MassHire. For example, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County is now the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board; CareerPoint in Holyoke is now the MassHire Holyoke Career Center. Springfield-based FutureWorks is now the MassHire Springfield Career Center; you get the idea.

There are 29 career centers and 16 workforce boards across the state, and they are now all unified under the MassHire brand, replacing what were 45 different names.

It sounds like a simple bureaucratic initiative perhaps designed to save money. But it’s much more than that; it’s an effort to simplify matters for job seekers and employers alike and bring more focus and energy to what is easily this state’s biggest and most vexing ongoing issue when it comes to business and economic development — creating and sustaining a large and effective workforce.

Rebranding to MassHire won’t solve all the problems, but it will make the system that’s been created — and it is a very good system, to be sure — far more user-friendly and reduce a great deal of confusion about where employers, employees, and job seekers should turn for help.

And a good deal of help is needed when it comes to each of those constituencies.

For employers, these are very intriguing times, as we’ve noted on many occasions and in several different ways. The economy is chugging along and doing very well in most respects. Many companies across a number of sectors are in a growth mode, but they are challenged — as in severely challenged — to find talented help that will enable them to achieve that growth.

Rebranding to MassHire won’t solve all the problems, but it will make the system that’s been created — and it is a very good system, to be sure — far more user-friendly and reduce a great deal of confusion about where employers, employees, and job seekers should turn for help.

It’s a numbers game, and it’s reaching a critical stage as unemployment rates continues to fall, even in urban markets such as Springfield and Holyoke, where they have been consistently higher than the state and national averages. In fact, in many states, and in this one, according to most accounts, we’re at what’s known as full employment.

That’s a technical term to describe a situation where, by and large, everyone who needs a job, and is qualified to hold one, has one. Full employment is a good thing, in most respects, but it’s also a dangerous state, because employers are under more duress as they look to fill their ranks.

Meanwhile, this situation is made much worse by the huge numbers of Baby Boomers that are retiring each year.

The phrase you hear most often these days, whether it’s the manufacturing sector (that’s probably where it’s heard most) or healthcare, or even financial services, is that candidates ‘lack the skills’ companies require. The career centers and workforce boards were created to help people acquire those skills and make them workforce-ready.

But because each one had a different name, there was often confusion about just where employers and employees should turn to get the help they needed.

As we said, rebranding to MassHire is not, by itself, going to solve the many workforce challenges facing this state. But it is a big step forward in many respects.

What’s in a name? In this case, plenty.

Opinion

Opinon

By Suzanne Parker

Politics affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives. But for some groups, including women and girls, what happens politically has a disproportionate impact on their health, safety, and well-being.

Many of the issues heavily debated right now — the economy, healthcare, gun control, and education — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power due to factors such as gender, age, race, and ethnicity.

This is why it’s so important for girls to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through the Girls Inc. ‘She Votes’ initiative, girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and are inspired to lead and become future female leaders.

Through ‘She Votes,’ girls research candidates, hold mock debates, meet with elected officials, visit polling places, and even help register voters.

Building a more equitable society means educating and empowering girls to be actively involved in civics and the political process. Three key reasons why it matters right now:

1. Starting early means greater likelihood of voting

We know there is a relationship between youth civic education and their political engagement and future voting. When we help young people understand early on why voting is important, how the political process works, voting rights, and their local government, they build a lifelong commitment to being civically engaged. During the 2014 midterm elections, only 12% of eligible 18- to 21-year-old college or university students voted.

2. Women are still very underrepresented in public office

Women remain underrepresented among state governors, in Legislatures, and in local office. Women of color are further underrepresented as elected officials. While women make up more than half the U.S. population, they are represented by a Congress made up of 80% men. Educating girls and young women about this reality can empower them to change it. A government cannot represent the will of the people unless it reflects their diversity.

3. The 2018 midterm elections

On average, voter turnout is about 60% in a presidential election years, but only 40% during midterm years. Yet Congress (as well as local leaders) determines many of the policies that impact our daily lives. With a number of key issues affecting women and girls on the legislative agenda, this year’s election will play a critical role in determining whether girls in this country have the rights and opportunities they need to grow up healthy, educated, and empowered.

At Girls Inc., we believe the recruitment of women into political and other forms of leadership must start with girls. We encourage area residents and business leaders to use this year’s election season to engage and empower the girls in your lives — and make sure you vote, too.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of Holyoke; [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

With MGM Springfield dominating the 24-hour news cycle like nothing that came before it in local business history, it’s sometimes easy to momentarily forget about all the other positive, even transformational things going on within the local economy.

We said ‘momentarily,’ because this issue should help readers put the new casino aside for just a moment and appreciate, again, the depth and diversity of the region’s economy and all it takes to make this region as special as it is.

Specifically, we’re talking about the Healthcare Heroes for 2018. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Healthcare Heroes is a recognition program created by BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, and launched last year to shine a bright spotlight on a sector that is sometimes overlooked. Indeed, BusinessWest has other recognition programs — Forty Under 40 and Difference Makers — but, historically, those working within the broad realm of health and wellness have not been well-represented by those programs, making it clear that something distinct for that sector was needed.

One of the goals with Healthcare Heroes was to create a vehicle for relaying some of the many amazing stories taking place within this industry, stories that convey energy, compassion, innovation, forward thinking, and, above all, passion — for finding ways to improve quality of life for those that these people and agencies touch every day.

It was that way in 2017 with the inaugural class of Heroes, and it’s the same this year with the winners of seven carefully crafted categories. The stories are many things, but most of all, they’re inspiring, which was yet another goal of this program. Each story is different, but the common denominator is the passion brought to what they do.

That’s what Mary Paquette brings to her role as director of Health Services at American International College. She has completely transformed that service, once one of the lowest-rated in surveys of students, into one of the highest.

It’s also what Celeste Surreira, winner in the ‘administration’ category, brings to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke every day. She’s spent most of her long career in healthcare working the emergency room, but made this dramatic career shift because it represented a chance to be on the front lines dealing with the larger issues emerging in healthcare today.

And it’s what Dr. Matthew Sadof has brought to his pediatric practice for decades now. A passionate advocate for the underserved and the marginalized, he has dedicated his career to healing patients and — through his work with the Community Asthma Coalition and other initiatives — making the Springfield community a better, healthier one.

Peter DePergola II is the Hero in the Emerging Leader category, and fittingly so. He has emerged as not only a leader but a true pioneer in the field of bioethics. There are many facets to his work, especially those incredibly hard talks he must have with patients, families, and healthcare providers about end-of-life issues.

Speaking of pioneers, that term also applies to Robert Fazzi. He likes to say he’s spent his entire career — nearly a half-century of work — in the ‘helping professions,’ culminating in his work with company, which, for 40 years, has been on the cutting edge of developments in the home-care and hospice sectors.

That phrase cutting-edge also applies to the winner in the Innovation category, TechSpring. Launched more than three years ago, this venture, in the words of its co-founder Christian Lagier, exists at the intersection of healthcare and technology, and has forged unique collaborative efforts between innovators, healthcare providers, and even patients to bring new developments to the market.

Lastly, in the category called Collaboration in Health/Wellness, a large, powerful collaboration led by the Western Mass. Training Consortium and the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region has been changing — and saving — lives through a host of innovative initiatives.

Together, and also individually, these stories are powerful — powerful enough to take your eyes off the new casino for a minute and understand just some of the many other awesome things taking place in this region.