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After failures, DPH seeks 30 new staffers to boost inspection ability

FITCHBURG — Interim Commissioner of Public Health Lauren Smith said Thursday that when she took over the depart­ment, following a deadly meningitis outbreak and the closure of a crime lab that shook confidence in the regulators, she engaged in a “frank and brutally honest introspection” with her staff.

One result of that introspection is a proposed $32 million budget increase at DPH, bringing the total amount to $549 million, which would allow for increased inspections and oversight of health care, hazardous material, and substance abuse facilities. That would fund 30 new ­positions and send $1 million to the Board of Registration in Pharmacy, Smith said.

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“The public in general goes through its business, its daily life and appropriately assumes that the services, the restaurants, the beaches, the mammography machines, or everywhere it goes, that someone has looked at that, and someone has made sure that it’s OK,” said Smith. “Our role, as I see it, is to make sure that the public’s assumption that those things are well taken care of is actually true.”

The public’s confidence in pharmacies was shaken last year as hundreds fell ill around the country with ailments, includ­ing fungal meningitis, from tainted steroids produced at the New England Compounding Center in Framingham. That outbreak, which has sickened 714 and killed 48 by this week, led to changes within DPH, including unannounced inspections at the state’s 40 sterile compounding pharmacies. Many of those ­revealed that the alleged lack of proper protocols at the Framingham pharmacy was not unique.

“Although NECC, their ­actions might have been the most egregious, clearly there is a necessity to have improved oversight of this industry,” Smith told the members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees, which met at the Dukakis Performing Arts Center in Fitchburg Thursday.

“It’s going to be important for us to have those resources to investigate them,” said Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz in his own testimony.

Of other labs, Polanowicz said, “What we did find was only very few of them got a completely clean bill of health.”

Governor Deval Patrick’s budget is predicated on tax changes that would raise $1.9 billion in additional revenue by closing tax incentives, raising the income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent and lowering the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent.

Patrick’s tax plan calls for a $1 increase on the cigarette tax and raised taxes on other ­tobacco products, which would raise roughly $69 million in fiscal 2014 and $166 million in fiscal 2015, Smith said.

Applying the sales tax to candy and soda — items that are currently exempt, as is all other food — would raise $22 million in fiscal 2014 and $53 million in 2015, Smith said.

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