PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Longtime former CVS Health chief executive Tom Ryan is blasting Gov. Dan McKee over a new TV attack ad that criticizes Rhode Island’s largest private company for allegedly helping to fuel the opioid crisis.
McKee released the new commercial on Friday afternoon as his campaign seeks to halt the momentum of his Democratic primary rival Helena Foulkes, who worked with Ryan for years as a senior executive at CVS. Foulkes gave a well-received debate performance Tuesday and was then endorsed by The Boston Globe.
In the new McKee ad, a narrator accuses Foulkes of “running misleading ads with money she made pumping opioids into our homes.” On screen is a headline from the website GoLocalProv, which reads: “CVS and Foulkes are haunted by their roles in opioid crisis.”
McKee is far from the first person to criticize CVS leaders over opioids: the company was one of multiple pharmacy chains recently ordered to pay damages over the epidemic in Ohio, and Foulkes has repeatedly faced questions about the issue on the campaign trail.
But CVS is also Rhode Island’s biggest company by far, ranking No. 4 on the Fortune 500, with roughly 7,000 employees across the state. It built its Woonsocket headquarters in 1981 and has grown enormously in the years since.
Ryan — who retired in 2011 as CVS chairman and CEO after 17 years at the helm — told 12 News he was outraged by the commercial.
“I have been around Rhode Island politics a long time so not much surprises me,” Ryan said in a statement. “However, a sitting governor publicly attacking and slandering the largest company in Rhode Island and one of the most philanthropic corporations in the country, in an attempt to win an election, is unconscionable.”
In a reference to CVS’s role in administering COVID-19 vaccine doses around the state, he said, “CVS was the governor’s most valuable ally as he got ‘shots in arms’ and now in a desperate attempt to keep his job he has unfairly maligned this loyal partner.”
Ryan added: “Come Election Day, I hope all CVS associates, family members, relatives and suppliers take note of how the governor feels about CVS.”
Ryan has donated to a super PAC supporting Foulkes as well as to her campaign, but he has also contributed $1,250 to McKee’s campaign since last year. Ryan is among Rhode Island’s most prominent businessmen, a member of the URI Board of Trustees and the namesake donor of the Ryan Center, the university’s arena for basketball games and other events.
Brexton Isaacs, McKee’s campaign manager, stood by the charge leveled in the TV ad.
“Helena Foulkes owes families an apology for not providing the leadership that was needed as the opioid crisis exploded under her watch,” Isaacs told 12 News in a statement. “Let’s be clear — our ad is about Helena Foulkes’ failure to address the opioid crisis.”
“Helena Foulkes is running to be governor, citing her corporate experience, but her failure of leadership has forced the company to now make hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement payments to families and communities that have been devastated,” Isaacs continued. “The hardworking employees here in Rhode Island should be outraged at Helena Foulkes’ lack of leadership.”
Foulkes has pushed back on such criticism, arguing she moved quickly while at CVS to try and cut off prescriptions issued by doctors involved in pill mills. She has pinned the blame on Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family that has become the poster child of the opioid crisis.
“Every player in the system was duped by Purdue Pharma, so that makes me angry,” Foulkes said last year on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “It was a really complicated time, it was hard to see the data across all of our stores, and I think it did take all of us too long.”
Spokespersons for the current leadership at CVS did not immediately respond to questions about McKee’s ad and Ryan’s response.
The decision by McKee campaign’s to frontally attack Foulkes over CVS’s role in the opioid crisis — echoed by surrogates such as state Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston — quickly became fodder for debate among Rhode Island political observers.
Critics of the move pointed out that in addition to its role in the Rhode Island economy, CVS has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Governors Association, which is supporting McKee for re-election. But McKee defenders noted that he isn’t the first sitting governor to voice criticism of CVS.
McKee has faced his own negative headlines over opioid money, as well.
After being chastised by his primary opponent in 2018, McKee agreed to donate $4,000 in campaign contributions from members of the Sackler family because of the money Purdue Pharma made from opioids. Jon Sackler had also donated $20,000 to an outside group that helped McKee win the 2014 election for lieutenant governor.
Attorney General Peter Neronha reached a $45 million settlement with Purdue and the Sacklers in March, but said in a statement at the time, “there is no amount of money that will be enough to undo or compensate Rhode Islanders for the harms perpetrated by Purdue and the Sacklers.”
Isaacs said McKee has donated the Sacklers’ money “over four years ago” while Foulkes has failed to apologize for the crisis, and added that the opioid issue “is personal for Governor McKee.” He noted that McKee helped Rhode Island’s cities and towns organize a lawsuit against opioid companies when he was lieutenant governor, which helped yield tens of millions of dollars in settlement money that is now being used to address the crisis.
McKee and Foulkes are facing Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former Secretary of State Matt Brown and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The eventual Democratic nominee will face the winner of the GOP primary between Ashley Kalus and Jonathan Riccitelli.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.