In a rare flex of legislative authority, the Democratic-led Massachusetts Legislature will call Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to a series of oversight hearings to answer for a vaccine rollout that some have criticized as sluggish and inequitable.
Massachusetts Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Wednesday that they will convene a joint committee for the first hearing on Feb. 25, and seek testimony from the Baker administration on its vaccine distribution operation and future plans for distribution.
The announcement comes as Massachusetts has shown marked improvement in its distribution process, having recently notched its millionth vaccine administered. So far, though, state, local, and national leaders have kept the pressure on Baker, calling on him to address persistent racial disparities, improve the sign-up process, and prioritize different vulnerable groups. The administration announced Wednesday that individuals who are over the age of 65 or have two or more chronic health conditions will become eligible Thursday to receive the vaccine in the state. The expansion will nearly double the number of Massachusetts residents who are eligible for shots, according to state officials.
“We have heard the frustration and anger of people across Massachusetts about the constantly changing and confusing vaccination roll out plan, and we are using the tools at our disposal to help people get answers, especially about what we can expect moving forward,” Spilka said in a statement announcing the oversight hearings. “It is essential that we get a greater understanding of the Baker Administration’s plans to improve our vaccination rates, especially for those communities and populations hardest hit, including persons who are medically fragile or with disabilities, teachers, and communities of color.”
Mariano and Spilka said more hearings will be scheduled in the coming weeks, following the Feb. 25 panel. The lawmakers did not immediately say which officials from the administration would be called to testify.
Asked about the oversight hearing at a news conference Wednesday, Baker said he and his administration have shared material and information about their vaccine distribution plans throughout the process, but “obviously we look forward to talking to them about this.”
The Legislature doesn’t routinely hold oversight hearings, instead using its dozens of committees to primarily vet and shepherd through thousands of bills each session. But lawmakers have turned to them as a check on the Baker administration, including in recent months through a series of hearings examining the failures at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home amid the pandemic.
In 2019, the Legislature also staged a seven-hour examination of mistakes within the Registry of Motor Vehicles after a deadly crash killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire and thrust the Registry into crisis.
Throughout most of the pandemic, the Legislature often acted as a deferential partner to Baker, who has wielded vast emergency powers to guide the state through the crisis. But lawmakers have been increasingly critical, and vocal, about the state’s balky vaccination rollout, filing legislation to reshape the process, peppering the administration with letters, and forming new committees with the specific charge of providing more scrutiny of the state’s plans.
Speaking at the State House news conference Wednesday, Baker said the state has made strides in ramping up the administration of vaccines, with 285,000 doses given last week and more than 1.1 million first doses administered so far.
Baker said Massachusetts now ranks ninth in the country per capita for first dose vaccinations, according to CDC data. Among the two dozen states with more than 5 million people, Massachusetts ranked first, Baker said.
The second-term Republican said it’s because of “that progress” the state is beginning to open vaccinations to those who are age 65 and older and people with two or more chronic health conditions.
The state, however, continues to lag in other metrics. For example, Massachusetts has administered roughly 76 percent of the vaccine doses it’s been given, putting it 35th in the country, according to data tracked by Becker’s Hospital Review.
“I knew coming out of the gate, we’d be slow,” Baker said, defending the pace of the state’s vaccination program.
He said the administration wanted to “target” vaccines to vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations that few other states prioritized, such as the homeless. The state also put a lot of work into being as “thorough and aggressive” as possible in vaccinating staff and residents in long-term care facilities, achieving higher rates in these facilities than the national average, Baker said. “But that stuff took a long time.”