PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – More than a decade ago, Rhode Island’s last Republican governor decided the state needed a single powerful office to manage billions of dollars in annual spending on Medicaid and other social services.
Now, the man who wants to be Rhode Island’s next Republican governor says it’s time to reverse the move.
Responding to this week’s revelation of a botched legal appeal by the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, GOP candidate Allan Fung said he wants to eliminate the office and return to having the agencies it oversees report directly to the governor.
Fung’s campaign said the lawsuit snafu – along with the UHIP computer debacle and ongoing problems at the Department of Children, Youth and Families – show “taxpayers are being poorly served by this patronage directorship position.”
“Mayor Fung wants to blow the super-agency up, and return to the previous structure that had each department director reporting directly to the governor,” his campaign said. “This will allow for more hands on involvement by the governor and increased accountability.”
Then-Gov. Don Carcieri created EOHHS by executive order in March 2004, putting five state departments – Elderly Affairs; DCYF; Health; Human Services; and Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals – under the oversight of one office. (Elderly Affairs has since become a Health Department division, while Mental Health has been renamed.) The heads of those departments report to the secretary of health and human services.
In 2006, the General Assembly codified Carcieri’s executive order in state law, making EOHHS permanent. In 2011, the executive office became the designated department that oversees Medicaid, the $2-billion-plus state-federal health program for low-income individuals that is now the largest part of the state budget.
At the time lawmakers gave their blessing to the secretariat, Carcieri argued that EOHHS would “develop a more cohesive health and human services policy agenda for the state.” He also said it could “direct the development of goals and objectives necessary to improve the delivery of services and attain better outcomes for the people and communities served.”
But Fung’s campaign argued events have shown the EOHHS structure “is not working.” He and other opponents of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo have also called for her to fire the current secretary, Eric Beane, over the lawsuit mess. (He succeeded Elizabeth Roberts, who resigned over the UHIP debacle last year.) The office has requested 295 full-time employee equivalents, or FTEs, for next fiscal year.
Patricia Morgan, a rival Republican candidate, disagreed with Fung. “Some candidates will throw out suggestions just to get media attention,” she said, but “that doesn’t mean their press releases are good policy.”
“Agencies, big or small, work when people are held accountable,” Morgan said. “It is clear that neither the governor nor her directors of EOHHS have chosen to hold folks accountable for their actions, inactions and poor judgment. The DMV is a small agency, does it work any better because it is small?”
Morgan noted that Carcieri created EOHHS “to streamline administrative functions of our safety net departments,” and said the structure should work if “administrative tasks are performed with oversight and responsible vigilance.”
In addition, Morgan is calling for an independent investigation of EOHHS, including but not limited to the bungled lawsuit.
“It would explore any conflicts of interest or political influences that may have impacted the lawyer’s inaction,” she said Wednesday. “Additionally, it would seek to understand the lack of oversight and supervision by senior management.” The probe would also consider the UHIP computer fiasco and Raimondo’s “Reinventing Medicaid” initiative, she said.
R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell, who is considering a run for lieutenant governor, sided with Fung. “The savings from eliminating the EOHHS can help pay the $24 million taxpayers will lose in this court case,” Bell said.
Emily Samsel, a spokeswoman for the Raimondo campaign, did not respond to a question about whether the governor thinks EOHHS’s structure should be re-examined.
Responding to Fung, however, Samsel said: “It’s no surprise that Mayor Fung is playing politics. It’s too bad he hasn’t done a better job leading in Cranston. No one has forgotten that a state investigation into the Cranston police department scandal found that Mayor Fung ‘failed to take the necessary and appropriate corrective actions, which empowered others to continue to make unprofessional decisions.’”
“Mayor Fung’s missteps cost Cranston residents $5 to $8 million,” she added. “Rhode Island can’t afford Mayor Fung’s failed leadership.”
Morgan and Fung both said they think part of the problem is the individuals Raimondo has appointed in social services.
Fung cited multiple appointees at DCYF, including Jamia McDonald, who ran the agency for roughly two years despite not having the required master’s degree; Ryan Wolfe, whom Fung said was “a former manager at Yankee Candle” and was given a high-level position; and Denis Riel, a former R.I. Emergency Management Agency spokesman who handled training there. He also cited Melba Depena-Affigne, a political ally of Raimondo’s who ran DHS until she was ousted over UHIP.
“Raimondo’s extensive record of hiring completely unqualified friends for very important positions demonstrates her willingness to sell out the safety of Rhode Islanders,” Fung said. “Rhode Islanders have had enough of this insanity.”
Morgan added that the problems at EOHHS show “what happens when those positions are filled with political cronies with little relevant experience based upon political considerations. When those directors and their staffs are not held accountable, the clients of those programs and the taxpayers suffer.”
Responding to Fung again, Samsel suggested he “continues to root against Rhode Island and ignore the progress we are making under Governor Raimondo’s leadership.” She cited rising job numbers and the expansion of renewable energy, as well as increased spending on schools, job training and infrastructure.
“The people of Cranston will be better served if Mayor Fung wastes less time on frivolous political attacks and works on rescuing his city from its ‘distressed’ condition,” she said, referring to a state designation that provides extra state aid to municipalities with weaker economic conditions.
A third Republican candidate, Giovanni Feroce, joined the criticism on Wednesday. Raimondo “refuses to own her lack of leadership training and experience and thus tries to suggest it is some step in a process that was missed,” he argued.