UPDATE : Staff confirms patient transfers are underway at Zambarano

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BURRILLVILLE – Despite statements from the Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities Administration denying a plan to transfer patients and staff out of the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital, staff has confirmed legislators’ claims that the move to the Cranston unit is now underway at the facility.

The confirmation is just the latest chapter in conflicting accounts between those who say they’re working to save the hospital, and a state department that has not been forthcoming with information about plans for the Burrillville-based facility.

Senate Minority Whip Jessica de la Cruz and Rep. David Place are calling the latest move part of a planned “shadow closure” of Zambarano and the pair stated on Wednesday, March 31 that BHDDA intended to transfer 20 ventilator patients and employees to the Cranston campus.

“We are confident that once moved, these patients will not be brought back,” said de la Cruz, a Republican representing District 23 in Burrillville, Glocester and North Smithfield.

A spokesman from BHDDH, however, denied there was a plan to relocate patients.

“There is no plan to move oxygen-dependent patients from the Zambarano facility,” said BHDDH spokesman Randal Edgar.

On Thursday, an employee at Zambarano who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation confirmed to NRI NOW that staff has been asked to work at the Cranston-based Regan building – because 20 patients are on their way out.

“They stated there was a problem with oxygen,” the staff member said. “We’ve never had that happen before.”

de la Cruz and Place, a Republican representing District 47 in Burrillville and Glocester, noted that the hospital provides care to extremely vulnerable patients that is unavailable elsewhere in the state.

“The actions BHDDH is taking show a callous disregard for the patients at Zambarano, and this plan was set into motion more than a year ago by Gov. Raimondo’s department heads,” de la Cruz said. “We have been working very hard to shine a light on these actions so Gov. McKee can take the opportunity to stop efforts to close Zambarano.”

The latest controversy began a day before the House Committee on Oversight has scheduled a hearing on the facility to be be streamed live from the State House.

According to both the legislators and former doctors from the hospital, who testified on the matter at a hearing earlier this month, administrators began planning the closure last year under the guise that services were not needed, and then began pressuring physicians to improperly discharge patients.

Some charge the effort was prompted by the loss of millions in revenue after Zambarano fell out of compliance with Medicare and Medicaid, an issue only recently resolved.

Place said the reason given for the most recent transfer of patients was a fire marshal’s inspection report about, “leaking isolation valves,” in the hospital’s oxygen system for ventilator patients. NRI NOW reported that the fire marshal had shut down the kitchen at the hospital after a visit last week.

The lawmakers allege that the BHDDH administration voluntarily pointed out the problem after the comprehensive inspection was completed with the intent of getting cited, and used the inspection as the excuse to move the patients. The leaks, they say, were identified several years ago and no action to fix the problem was taken.

“Actions like these are in direct contradiction of BHDDH’s public statements saying they are keeping the hospital open,” Place said. “Gov. McKee is getting set up as the villain that closed Zambarano and threw vulnerable patients out of their home.”

“Now that we know what is happening due to the former administration’s planning and directives, we are asking the governor to intervene and order all transfers to stop until a certified medical gas expert has examined the system and states there is a need to uproot these patients from their homes,” Place said. “We need to put a stop to this before it is too late.”

The Burrillville hospital closed two of its six units last month and according to the legislators, once the patient census drops below a certain size, it will be impossible to save the hospital.

“Once it is gone you can never rebuild it, and that is what the BHDDH administration is counting on,” de la Cruz said.

Without prompting, an anonymous staff member expressed similar fears.

“This is going to drop the census at Zambarano and people are going to start losing their jobs if they don’t agree to transfer to Cranston,” the person told NRI NOW. “Due to the two unit closures we are walking on top of each other now and are overstaffed.”

Fire marshals did not order the oxygen system or hospital to be shut down or the patients transferred, and the legislators say repairs can be made by simply moving the patients to an empty wing at Zambarano.

But in a statement, Edgar fully denied the assertion.

“A routine inspection by the State Fire Marshal of the Zambarano facility has identified problems with valves in the medical gas system, which provides oxygen and a suction effect,” the statement said. “In cooperation with the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, we now have an engineering firm assessing this problem.”

“The Fire Marshal has indicated that there is no imminent danger to patients, and there is no plan to move oxygen-dependent patients from the Zambarano facility. Should such moves become necessary, patients will be relocated to ensure their safety,”

Edgar said administrators would provide further details as they became available in the statement shared with NRI NOW on Wednesday around 4 p.m.

In an email shared with NRI NOW Thursday morning, BHDDH’s Deb Martinelli asked roughly 50 Zambarano employees if they’d be willing to work at Regan.

“We have to move approximately 18 patients to Cranston Regan 6,” Martinell wrote. “We are looking for RNs to follow these patients and work with them there.”

Place notes that the oxygen system problem was also referenced in an email exchange between Brian Daly, the chief medical officer for the state hospital and Assistant Chief Medical Officer Andrew Stone prior to BHDDH’s denial of the plan. Those emails were quoted in an article Wednesday, March 31 in The Providence Journal.

Stone was hired to lead the hospital last fall despite concerns over his past conviction as a sexual felon, a story NRI NOW broke in October.

“It’s well known at the hospital that they’re moving the patients,” Place said, in a statement NRI NOW confirmed Thursday.

Meanwhile, lawmakers expect an update on admission and discharge practices as well as the latest news about compliance with federal and medical standards on Thursday, April 1 starting at 4 p.m.

The State House remains closed to the public but the meeting will be live streamed at http://ritv.devosvideo.com/show?video=cd679c40105a.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version with the latest information and comments from BHDDH officials.

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