Power resigns as head of BHDDH amid ongoing controversy at Burrillville hospital


PROVIDENCE – The director of the agency that runs the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital has resigned from the position, a decision that comes amid months of controversy, and recent scrutiny by lawmakers, of the state’s plans for the facility.

Kathryn Power, director of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, has submitted a letter of resignation to Gov. Dan McKee citing a family medical issue.

Power, who also led the agency, formerly known as the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, from 1993 to 2003, was named to the position again in December of 2019 by former Gov. Gina Raimondo. She also served as director of the federal Center for Mental Health Services, a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for 15 years.

In recent weeks, Power has found herself testifying during hearings lasting more than four hours before both the House and Senate oversight committees over policies, plans and discharge procedures for Zambarano. Advocates for the hospital say that recent discharges and a decision to halt admissions at the facility are part of a “shadow closure,” meant to phase out the Burrillville unit of the state hospital system. Former doctors have testified that they were pressured to push out patients that had nowhere else to go.

Zambarano provides long-term acute and post-acute care for patients with complex medical and psychiatric needs.

McKee has proposed building a new hospital at the Burrillville campus at a cost of $65 million as part of his budget plan. But critics say that plan would not address their current concern over residents who currently call the facility home.

Last week, Power left while a meeting before the House Oversight Committee left while a hearing was still underway.

On Thursday, April 1, Zambarano Doctor Bette Gillerin, an internal medicine specialist, submitted her resignation.

In a letter to staff on Monday, April 5, Power said that Friday, April 9 will be her last day leading BHDDH.

“I believe that returning to the department helped all of us embrace a more aligned set of programs and services that are highly effective of the least restrictive environment, the most appropriate level of clinical care and the strong themes of personal choice, a safe stable living situation and whole life self-management,” Power wrote. “Serving more than 50,000 Rhode Islanders with complex conditions is a daily challenge and the 1,100 staff who work in this department are strong public servants with remarkable compassion and dedication to our mission.”

Cynthia Lussier, president of United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5019 which represents Zambarano’s registered nurses, said the latest news should put a hold on ongoing changes at the Burrillville hospital.

“Zambarano patients, families and frontline workers are all struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the hospital’s future and the state has yet to outline a clear plan for maintaining this critically-needed care facility. This is a department in utter disarray, and we believe a thoughtful pause is appropriate on all efforts underway to fundamentally alter the health services provided by the Eleanor Slater Hospital Zambarano unit,” said Lussier.

“We are eager to work with Gov. McKee and his administration to get this right and hope that, going forward, the process will far more be collaborative and transparent,” Lussier added.

This week, McKee announced that  Womazetta Jones will serve as the hospital’s interim director. Jones also serves as secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

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