Marion Rochester Regional Health District

To the Editor:

The Boards of Health of the Towns of Rochester and Marion wish to reply to recent newspaper articles and statements by Rochester’s Town Administrator and Town Counsel concerning the status of the Marion Rochester Regional Health District, in which they have attempted to build a case for withdrawal from the District for what they claim to be reasons of liability and savings. We believe that neither justification bears scrutiny, and that the Town will suffer in several respects if the change is made.

Despite numerous public statements to the contrary by the Town Administrator, we are confident that the law is clear that there is no need for the District to secure its own liability insurance. Because state law provides that District employees are treated as employees of the town of Rochester when performing duties in and for Rochester, the District’s employees are insured under the town’s “public officials” liability policy in connection with any activity in and for Rochester; they are similarly covered by Marion’s liability policy when they are performing duties in and for Marion. This point has been confirmed by written opinions from the District’s counsel, from Marion’s counsel, from counsel for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, and from a representative of the insurance carrier for the Town of Marion. Although Rochester’s Town Administrator has produced no written advice from that Town’s insurance carrier, and has directed District staff and officials not to Contact the carrier directly, he has continued to publicly state, as recently as April 22, that the insurer has advised him that there is no coverage.

Town Counsel for Rochester has recently conceded that he does not necessarily share that view, but states that he has concern about “gaps” in coverage, which he has declined to specify with sufficient particularity so that a question could be directed to our counsel and the Town’s insurer. At this point, the District feels that the Selectmen are attempting to engage it in a game of “whack-a-mole,” but we are prepared to respond in writing to any serious concern regarding liability that the Selectmen likewise state to us in writing.

The savings to the town from withdrawal from the District were largely premised on the contention that it should be purchasing liability insurance separately, which disappear when viewed in the light of the opinions cited above. Other than that, the only expense that would not be duplicated if the town withdrew is that of the District’s Treasurer, whom we pay $891.50 per year. We believe that modest expense is substantially outweighed by the savings enjoyed by the District and grants available to the District as a result of the economies of scale realized by pairing with Marion.

As we understand the Selectmen’s proposal at this point in time, they wish to withdraw from the District and hire a health agent part time, in contrast to the full-time agent that the town now employs. (When they first proposed this change, they suggested an inter-municipal agreement with the town of Marion that would permit continued sharing of a full-time employee; they apparently now concede that that arrangement will not work.) They have not asked the town of Marion whether it would be willing to likewise engage a part-time agent; nor have they asked the District or its agent whether she would be willing to accept part time employment, which would eliminate her health insurance coverage and other benefits of full-time employment. Given this lack of interest on the Selectmen’s part, our conclusion is that the Selectmen either intend that the town replace the current agent, or are simply indifferent to the issue. The District is highly doubtful that the town can attract an equally qualified candidate for a part-time position.

The Boards of Health of Rochester and Marion have had a long and successful collaborative relationship under the auspices of the Marion Rochester Regional Health District. Our current agent is highly qualified and she and we enjoy mutual respect. The existence of the District allows the town of Rochester to apply more effectively for state grants, and to participate in public programs that would not be feasible if the town chose to go it alone. We cannot understand why the Selectmen want to forego all these advantages, and we respectfully urge Town Meeting members to vote against the Selectmen’s article for Withdrawal from the District.

Dale Barrows

Rochester Board of Health

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