PROVIDENCE – The Senate Committee on Health & Human Services endorsed Gov. Dan McKee’s pick for a new director of Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities and Hospitals this week, in a 7-2 vote.
Former Landmark Medical Center president and CEO Richard Charest was endorsed for the role leading the agency after a two-hour hearing on Thursday, June 3, and is expected to go before the full Senate for confirmation on Tuesday, June 8.
But it was a senator from the same community as the proposed agency leader, who has served as an advocate for Burrillville’s Zambarano Hospital over the past year, who cast one of the dissenting votes.
Charest, a North Smithfield resident, retired from his position leading Landmark in Woonsocket in 2017 after seeing the facility through a difficult financial period that included receivership, the complicated regulatory process of conversion to for-profit operations, and the eventual completion of a sale to Prime Health Services.
If confirmed for the new position, he will again be tasked with taking on a crisis, facing many challenges as he leads a state agency under scrutiny and slated for a controversial restructuring.
BHDDH has a $480 million budget and some 1,100 employees, and oversees Eleanor Slater Hospital, including Zambarano, a Burrillville-based unit that provides care for the state’s most vulnerable and high-needs patients.
Zambarano, opened in 1905 as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, has been in the spotlight over the past year after the hospital fell out of compliance with Medicare and Medicaid. The issue was reportedly the result of an administrative decision not to update a computer system, and led to the loss of more the millions in reimbursements for patient care, money McKee is reportedly working to recoup.
But lawmakers representing the town, Rep. David Place and Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, really began ringing alarm bells after two of the six units at the Burrillville hospital were closed in February, alleging the actions were part of a, “shadow,” plan to shut down the facility, known as the hospital of last resort.
In the months that have followed, former doctors and nurses have stepped forward to testify about being pushed to discharge patients who had no where else to go, the handling of maintenance and finances, and more, leading to several legislative hearings, including a five-hour showdown before the House Finance Committee this week, and an ongoing investigation by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.
Former BHDDH director Kathryn Power resigned in April, citing personal conflicts.
McKee recently halted plans left behind by his predecessor, former Gov. Gina Raimondo, to replace the existing 189-bed facility in Burrilvlille with a new building at a cost of $65 million, a proposal critics worried would not serve Zambarano’s current population of long-term residents with complex and demanding medical conditions.
And last month, McKee announced his appointment of Charest, pointing to the longtime hospital administrator’s, “turnaround experience.”
de la Cruz, who also lives in North Smithfield and represents District 23 in her hometown and neighboring Burrillville, serves as Senate minority whip, which made her eligible to cast a vote at this week’s advice and consent hearing on Charest’s nomination, as an ex-officio member of the Committee on Health & Human Services.
The senator told NRI NOW that she approached the hearing, “with an open mind,” and was, “very candid,” with her line of questioning.
“My number one concern is the health and well being of the residents of Zambarano Hospital,” de la Cruz said. “I am a big supporter of the hospital’s work in providing health care for our state’s most vulnerable population.”
“I did not feel that Dr. Charest was completely forthright when asked about his views on the future of Zambarano Hospital. My hope is that he will publicly commit to keeping Zambarano open and improving its administration and level of resident care,” de la Cruz said.
Sen. Sam Bell of Providence cast the second dissenting vote.
de la Cruz said she’s open to voting in the affirmative for Charest’s confirmation at the full senate hearing next week if he’s able to clarify his stance on and plan for the facility.
“I believe what the residents and staff at Zambarano Hospital need is an administrator who is laser-focused on remedying the problems at the hospital and getting it back on the right track,” she said. “If Mr. Charest can convince me that he is committed to the long-term viability of Zambarano, then he will have my support.”
Editor’s note: Charest was confirmed for the position in a vote by the full Senate on Tuesday, June 8.