Needham resident Jeffrey Shapiro is Massachusetts Inspector General/ Credit: Needham Observer

Massachusetts Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro knows a good source of information about state waste, fraud and abuse when he sees one. “When I go shopping at Roche Bros. or Sudbury Farms, people tell me things. I learned about the commuter rail when people’s tickets were not punched. Everyone’s got an opinion on a road that maybe shouldn’t have been paved.”

Shapiro, a Needham native and resident (NHS Class of 1985), was appointed inspector general for a five-year term by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2022. The office has an enormous mandate: It trains thousands of state and local officials in fair, ethical procurement. It polices the healthcare industry’s billing practices for MassHealth and government-related services. It investigates state police and transportation system abuses. “We have about 90 people and $10 million to work with, and we’re looking at the work of about 300,000 people and they spend about $120 billion,” said Shapiro.

The Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General was the first statewide inspector general’s office in the country. “We were created as a recommendation from the Ward Commission, which was created in the late 1970s, to look at construction irregularities, most notably problems at UMass Boston. As they were being dismantled, they suggested that the Legislature create an agency that is always staffed with professionals that can look at fraud, waste and abuse.”

In the federal government and in many other states, inspectors general are organized by subject matter. “And so for us to be statewide is unique,” said Shapiro. “There have been a number of other states that have followed it. But having a portfolio like that can be awesome and interesting. It can also be in some ways overwhelming. And so I think one of the biggest challenges that the team and I face is trying to figure out what it is that we pursue.”

In an attempt to better inform the public about those choices, Shapiro introduced a new format to the office’s annual report, which was released on April 30. “I thought the old annual report looked like an appellate brief,” he said. He thinks this time residents “might read an article about something that we did with the T or with a housing authority, or municipal government, or with Health and Human Services, or any number of other places. And that might grab their attention to think about, ’Oh, when I see something, this is who I can call, and this is a tip that I can make.’ We’re always interested to hear from people.” The office receives more than 2,000 tips about questionable practices each year; Sudbury Farms is not, in fact, the primary place Shapiro and his team get their information.

Shapiro has succeeded in lobbying the state Legislature for more resources. “When I came in, our MassDOT/MBTA unit had about $577,000 in that account to do that work. And it was about five or six people. And if one thinks about all that’s going on with the MBTA — forget about MassDOT — what would I do with six people?” 

The division now has more than $800,000 in funding, but that’s still unlikely to be enough to monitor all the potential problems. One of the office’s new strategies is to use data analysis to predict and identify problem areas, rather than relying solely on tips and complaints. While the work is not fully implemented, the expectation is that crunching data will find anomalies in contracting, spending or collections that can lead investigators to problems, whether it’s overcharges for state police details or underperformance by construction contractors. “I’m hoping that 20% of the things that we work on will come from data as opposed to coming from a walk-in, a hotline or an online complaint,” Shapiro said.

An example of data analysis was a study the inspector general’s office conducted on behavioral health charges at MassHealth, released this March. “There were questions about the ratios of supervision by senior providers to more junior people,” Shapiro said. “There’s a 10-1 ratio of hours of patient care to supervision by the senior people. And we came up with about $17 million or so in billed hours that were outside of that ratio. We also saw holidays that were billed that raise questions, and hours beyond 24 hours in a day that were billed.” 

While the investigations get the headlines, training is a large component of the work. There are 351 cities and towns in the state, and every one collects taxes and fees and contracts with providers of all kinds. Shapiro, who clearly does his homework, reported that 10 or more Needham town officials have gone through the state’s training, and with good effect. Shapiro points to Needham as a town that has greatly improved its procurement and contracting practices. “I noticed that at [this month’s] town meeting there was an appropriation for the Pollard School,” he said. He remembered an IG report on a Pollard project nearly 30 years ago. “Inspector General [Robert] Cerasoli issued a report on Pollard, and it was a pretty horrible report. There were lots of cost overruns, and there were time delays, and there were two quite significant change orders that created a lot of different dynamics as that played out. And I bring that up to say that the towns and communities can change, and the lessons in those kinds of reports can be significant. I think Needham has put in a permanent building committee since that time. It has created a number of municipal public buildings and really has done quite a great job.”

So does he think Needham is well run? “You know, you can always continue to do better. I wouldn’t be an oversight official if I didn’t say that, right?”

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