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Lawmaker slams ‘veil of secrecy’ around Slater hospital documents

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The lawmaker leading a Senate inquiry into the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital is doubling down on his calls for transparency regarding an outside legal firm hired in 2019 to examine the hospital’s finances.

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Louis DiPalma for weeks has been locked in a public records battle for weeks with the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services over work produced by the law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.

The Raimondo administration hired the firm 18 months ago after concerns were raised about whether the state-run hospital system was improperly billing the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At the time the state stopped billing the federal government — a decision that’s since cost Rhode Island taxpayers upward of $100 million in state money.

“I am asking the attorney to provide the requested information, which they can do and have chosen not to do,” DiPlama, D-Middletown, wrote Wednesday in a letter to R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha that was obtained by Target 12.

Sen. Louis DiPalma (center)

DiPalma filed an initial complaint with Neronha’s office last month, challenging EOHHS for blocking his request for the records that he argues should be public. The lawmaker and state agency officials have since been trading arguments through filings with the attorney general’s office.

“This reluctance to share the requested information … is extremely troubling, leading me to wonder what the state is hiding and why they are standing behind a veil of secrecy,” DiPalma wrote.

Through her attorney Lisa Martinelli, Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones has stood by the state’s position that the requested information isn’t public due to multiple exemptions in the state’s Access to Public Record Act, including one that shields information shared between attorneys and their clients.

“It is undisputed [the state] maintained an attorney-client privilege with Manatt,” Martinelli wrote in a response to DiPalma’s initial complaint. “EOHHS is entitled to invoke the attorney client privilege when a third party seeks documents covered by this privilege.”

Martinelli went on to cite the 1981 Supreme Court case Upjohn Co. v. United States: “The attorney-client privilege is the oldest of the privileges for confidential communication known to the common law.”

In its argument to the attorney general’s office, the state offered some details of the work provided by Manatt. The California-based law firm helped Rhode Island create a new plan to restart billing for Medicaid — a process that still hasn’t resulted in any funding, more than a year later. Manatt also advised the state on to avoid violating a federal law that mandates Eleanor Slater maintain more medical patients than psychiatric patients at any given time.

Video Now: HHS Secretary Nominee Womazetta Jones
EOHHS Secretary Womazetta Jones

It also “provided legal advice relative to level of care billing eligibility, and clarified billing requirements for the forensic population at [Eleanor Slater Hospital],” Martinelli wrote.

The federal government in March approved the state’s new plan to restart Medicaid billing at the hospital, and state officials at the time estimated it would result in an immediate recouping of nearly $10 million.

But the billing request never went through, and last week Gov. Dan McKee’s office announced it wouldn’t start billing again after all, echoing a similar message as the one provided in 2019: “staff raised questions regarding the eligibility of certain expenses.”

Rhode Island will again seek outside advice.

“To ensure the accuracy of bills submitted for Medicaid reimbursement, EOHHS will retain an outside, independent third party to undertake a facility and medical records review of ESH,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said in a statement. “We will continue to provide additional updates on the billing status as new information becomes available.”

Beyond the money problems, the state-run hospital system has been plagued by other controversies in recent months, including a deteriorated relationship between union groups and administrators and neglected maintenance of facilities.

Attorney General Peter Neronha

Neronha has launched his own investigation into the hospital, examining both patient care and its finances. And earlier this week Target 12 revealed one of the hospital’s top executives dodged two layoffs and continued to receive his $226,000 salary, even though records raised significant questions about his job status.

In DiPalma’s case, he continues to argue that transparency surrounding the Manatt work in 2019 is vital to his ongoing effort to provide legislative oversight. The attorney general’s office will now consider the two sides’ arguments and issue a decision on the public-records complaint.

“Without this requested information I cannot do my job to which I have been duly elected and sworn into office,” DiPalma wrote.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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