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McKee announces leadership shakeup at Eleanor Slater Hospital

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two high-ranking officials who have raised concerns about improper billing practices at the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital are out after several months of union criticism and turmoil at the state-run hospital system.

Matt Sheaff, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee, said Monday the state has placed the hospital’s former interim CEO, Jennifer White, on administrative leave for unspecified reasons.

“We cannot comment further on this matter,” Sheaff wrote in an email. (It wasn’t immediately clear whether White would continue to be paid while on leave.)

Sheaff also announced that Eleanor Slater’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Daly, is resigning at the end of July. Both White and Daly have helped lead the problem-plagued hospital, an arm of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, for the past two years.

“Ensuring high-quality patient care at Eleanor Slater Hospital is a top priority for BHDDH and the administration and we are committed to identifying a strong candidate for the position of chief medical officer,” Sheaff said, adding that a replacement would be announced before Daly’s last day on July 31.

White declined to comment when contacted Monday. Daly could not be immediately reached for comment. Target 12 has requested his resignation letter.

The shakeup follows intense criticism of both White and Daly by union groups that claim the executives have created a volatile work environment at the hospital. At least one union group has taken a vote of no confidence in their leadership.

Eleanor Slater has been under the microscope all year for other controversies tied to its finances, operations and deteriorating facilities. A national accrediting agency last week said the hospital’s roughly 200 patients are living in a “dangerous environment.” The hospital is currently the subject of at least five reviews and investigations, including one led by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha.

“At this point it has become clear that the current hospital management …. should be removed while investigations are pending,” AFSCME Rhode Island Council 94 leaders wrote in a joint memo to lawmakers last week. “Council 94 maintains that a new management team would be able to build a better relationship with patients, families, stakeholders and employees.”

At the same time, White and Daly have long been raising the alarm about improper billing practices at the hospital. The concerns were first raised by White and a handful of other state officials internally in 2019, causing the state to stop billing the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Fast-forward to this month, and Daly testified at a state Senate Oversight Committee hearing that past administrations had pressured doctors to make sure the state-run facility had more medical patients than psychiatric ones, in order to keep the facility eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding.

He told lawmakers such improper patient counting had been going on for “years and years and years.” In May, White signed a report that showed the number of psychiatric patients at the hospital spiked to 79% in May compared to 50% in December, which Daly claims is a more accurate representation of how patients at the long-term acute care hospital should be diagnosed.

Senate Oversight Chairman Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, said the timing of the shakeup in relation to Daly’s testimony is “problematic.” DiPlama has been leading the Senate’s inquiry into the hospital and its many problems.

“A week after we have the oversight meeting, he decides to resign?” DiPalma said after hearing the news Monday. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions and issues that were raised by him that need to be addressed.”

DiPalma also expressed some disappointment about the state putting White on administrative leave, saying he’s worked with her on developmental disabilities issues for the past two years and her private-sector experience has benefited public-sector operations.

“She’s a breath of fresh air,” DiPalma said. “I’m not sure what to think beyond that we need to understand and appreciate the rationale for why that decision was made.”

Notably absent from the personnel changes announced Monday were the hospital’s chief of medical services, Dr. Andrew Stone, and its chief operating officer, Christopher Feisthamel.

Like White and Daly, Stone has raised concerns about patient diagnoses and improper billing practices at the hospital. He was also included in the union’s vote of no confidence. (Chief nursing officer Eileen Dobbings has also been criticized by union groups.)

Feisthamel — whose $226,000 annual salary ranks in the top 10 largest among all state employees outside higher education — made headlines last month when a Target 12 investigation raised serious questions about his job status and how he dodged multiple efforts to terminate him since last October. Fesithamel has not been named by union groups.

The changes at the top come just before release of the results of a long-awaited review of Eleanor Slater by Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones. That report is expected out this week.

Jones, a holdover from the Gov. Gina Raimondo administration, has been examining operations at the hospital system for several weeks at McKee’s request. Eleanor Slater has been under her purview since her original appointment in 2019.

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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