PROVIDENCE – After months of ringing alarm bells over what they say were inappropriate discharges and an undisclosed plan to quietly close the facility, advocates applauded Gov. Dan McKee’s decision this week to pause changes at the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital.
The decision to halt a proposed downsizing of the Burrillville facility – which cares for the state’s most vulnerable high-needs patients – was announced by McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff on Friday, April 16.
The announcement follows months of advocacy by local legislators, who say they drew attention to the issue in reaction to calls from constituents.
“The hospital was closing, and if it weren’t for the patients and key staff reaching out to us, I think that it would have been closing for good,” Sen. Jessica de la Cruz told NRI NOW. “I’m so happy.”
According to Sheaff, the pause will take place so that McKee’s administration, “can have real and thoughtful dialog and engagement with the community stakeholders and the General Assembly on what the best solutions are to provide high-quality care that meets the needs of Rhode Islanders seeking these vital services.”
“It’s what Representative Place and I have been asking for,” said de la Cruz in reaction to the news. “Let’s look at what’s happening at the hospital, and then make a decision.”
McKee had initially indicated the intent to move forward with plans drafted by consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal, and had proposed building a new nursing home in place of current state facilities in Burrillville – at a cost of $65 million – as part of his 2022 budget. The restructuring plan was the result of a $1.3 million study of the hospital system commissioned by his predecessor, former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, prior to her decision to accept a position as Secretary of Commerce in President Joe Biden’s administration.
The study called for the discharge of many Zambarano patients under a mantra of providing care in the, “least restrictive setting.”
But many patients at Zambarano rely on hospital staff for even the most basic of needs, including some who cannot speak or eat independently, and are immobile. Former doctors and families of those currently in care, and the patients themselves have testified about the importance of Zambarano as a hospital that cares for those most in need – the only of its kind in the state.
Critics of McKee’s initial plan noted that it did not address their primary concern: What would happen to patients who had no suitable alternative to Zambarano?
“This is the least restrictive setting for these patients,” said de la Cruz this week. “These patients really have no where else to go.”
In early April, Kathryn Power resigned from her position as the director of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, the agency that oversees the state hospital system, amid the controversy over discharges and future plans for the facility.
McKee has since appointed secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services Womazetta Jones to serve as interim director of BHDDH.
And on Friday, Sheaff said Jones has been asked to take another look at plans for Eleanor Slater.
“Secretary Jones has been charged with conducting a thorough review of the department and to make recommendations to the governor on issues including, but not limited to, departmental policy, operations, staffing and quality standards of care,” Sheaff said in a statement. “As part of this review, the secretary will also be doing an assessment and re-evaluation of departmental plans and proposals that were developed during the prior administration.”
The announcement was also lauded by leadership of the union representing Zambarano’s registered nurses. Earlier this month, United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5019 members took a vote of “no confidence,” in the administrative leadership of Eleanor Slater.
“Governor McKee is right to reassess and pump the brakes on efforts to fundamentally alter the critical services at Zambarano and we welcome the opportunity to be part of an inclusive and transparent stakeholder process that holistically considers the needs of our patients, their families and the frontline nurses we represent,” said UNAP Local 5019 President Cynthia Lussier.
Rep. David Place and de la Cruz, who have been advocating on behalf of the hospital and its patients and staff, expressed cautious optimism about the news. The legislators, who represent Burrillville on the state level, are scheduled to meet with members of McKee’s administration on Tuesday, April 20.
“I think it’s very optimistic that the governor is taking a second look at this,” said Place. “We’re glad that he’s listening to the folk involved.”
“He transitioned into government pretty quickly,” de la Cruz said of McKee. “I guess he needed some time.”
“We’re happy that he’s revisiting this thing,” Place said. “It’s a first step.”
“It’s a step in the right direction,” agreed de la Cruz. “I don’t want to prematurely celebrate this, but it is a very good sign.”