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Mass. crime lab troubles were isolated, study finds

The state’s scandal-plagued crime lab operated like an ­island within the larger Jamaica Plain complex that houses the suite of Massachusetts testing labs, according to a report that found operations in the 17 other labs met industry standards. But the report concludes that years of budget cuts threaten quality at those labs.

The review, conducted in early October by the Association of Public Health Laboratories, concluded that leaders of the Hinton State Laboratory ­Institute need to restore two quality assurance officer positions eliminated during past budget cuts.

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The review found no violations of industry standards and noted that the labs are accredited by various independent ­organizations.

But it faulted the lab’s management system, saying it lacked a “consistent delegation of responsibility . . . at the super­visory and management levels.”

It also said tighter state budgets have had a “corrosive ­effect” on the number of quality assurance officers, noting that there were at least two such ­positions in the past. Now, those duties are handled part time.

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The labs at Hinton, part of the ­Department of Public Health, conduct testing that ­ranges from detecting flu and food poisoning to mosquito-borne illnesses. The report said Hinton’s biosafety system, which assures the safety of employees who work with dangerous germs, such as anthrax, needs to be strengthened.

Dr. Larry Madoff, interim director of Hinton, said years of state budget cuts have hurt the facility. “There has been a 30 percent reduction in staffing over the last five years,” he said.

Madoff said he is committed to hiring a quality assurance ­director and a director of biosafety, hires that will require additional money for the lab.

“It’s not a lot of money compared to the lab’s budget, which is $13 million a year,” Madoff said. “Two management-level employees, we’re talking less than 2 percent [roughly $260,000] of the budget. I am hoping we can get a little more from the Legislature.”

A former state chemist who worked at the crime lab is ­accused of tampering with drug samples, imperiling thousands of criminal cases. The crime lab, which was briefly closed, was transferred to State Police for oversight.

The Public Health Department requested independent review of Hinton after the scandal. The Boston Herald first ­reported on the report Friday.

The reviewers concluded that while practices at the 17 labs “meet the accepted standards of good laboratory practice,” lab supervisors need “formal and consistent training in supervision and quality management.” It also noted a need for more training for rank-and-file employees.

The review also said communication between supervisors and employees, and among the labs, needs improvement.

“It was reassuring, to help restore our confidence and public confidence in the lab, to know there were not major problems with quality that were pervasive that extended beyond the drug lab,” Madoff said.

He said he is following the report’s suggestions to add training for supervisors and employees and has started regular town hall-style meetings and brown bag lunches to help improve communications.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.
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