No payments yet for victims of meningitis outbreak

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office hasn’t paid any claims from the $40 million compensation fund set up last year for victims of the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak, though it expects to begin processing applications soon, according to a letter sent this month to lawmakers.

The AG’s office did not provide a specific timeline for when it would begin processing victims’ claims, except to say it would be “in the coming weeks.”

The office said it has received more than 400 applications from victims and survivors, and expects the total could rise to 800 based on the number of victims identified to date.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, wants the processing of claims to be treated as a higher priority. His district includes counties such as Livingston, Oakland and Ingham affected by the outbreak stemming from tainted steroids received from the now-defunct New England Compounding Center, which was based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

“We’re nearing the five-year mark of this terrible outbreak,” Bishop said recently on the House floor. “Against their own will, they became victims of this terrible tragedy, and they certainly do not need to also be victims of more bureaucratic red tape.”

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said it has not been able to disburse the money due to “complex” legal and administrative issues tied to the federal funds and complying with the Massachusetts victims’ compensation statute.

“As responsible stewards of these funds, we are making every effort to address these complexities as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Emily Snyder said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the outbreak to tainted injections of the steroid methylprednisolone acetate distributed by NECC to clinics throughout the country, including the Michigan counties of Genesee, Livingston, Macomb and Grand Traverse.

Michigan led the nation with at least 264 total cases of fungal meningitis and 19 deaths connected to the injections compounded at NECC, according to state health officials. Nationwide, 778 individuals were affected, including 76 deaths.

Federal prosecutors in Boston charged 14 people in connection with the outbreak, alleging that NECC employees knew they were making the medication in an unsafe and unsanitary way and shipped it for sale.

A federal jury in March convicted Barry Cadden, the co-founder and former president of NECC, of racketeering and fraud charges. Cadden was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison for his role in the outbreak.

The U.S. Department of Justice Department said in July it had set aside $40 million specifically for victims of the outbreak.

The money – which came from federal criminal fines, penalties and forfeited bail bonds – was released nine months ago on Sept. 29 to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to create and administer the compensation fund.

Through the fund, victims may be eligible for reimbursement of expenses up to $25,000 per crime, according to the Massachusetts AG’s Office. In cases where the victim was catastrophically injured or died as a result of the injections, victims could be eligible for a maximum $50,000.

Bishop last month sent a letter to the Massachusetts AG’s Office, joined by 11 colleagues including eight from Michigan’s delegation, asking for an update on the disbursement process.

The office responded in a June 2 letter, saying it has taken “numerous steps” toward fully implementing the compensation program, including hiring a program director and consultant, and contracting with a vendor to build customized software for processing claims.

It also must coordinate with the federal Office for Victims of Crime to develop protocols to comply with federal reporting requirements and develop further protocols with the federal prosecutor for vetting applicants’ eligibility.

The AG’s office has been in direct contact with Michigan’s NECC victims about their eligibility for compensation, and has been in regular contact with Bishop and his staff about his questions and concerns about the disbursement process, Snyder said.

“Our office shares the goal of wanting to ensure that victims are able to receive these funds as soon as possible,” she said.

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