JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A controversial remark made by Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena at a recent hearing has put a spotlight on a bill that would restructure how Rhode Island regulates ambulances.
The bill — sponsored by Rep. Deb Fellela, D-Johnston, and Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston — cleared the House and Senate last week and was sent to Gov. Dan McKee’s desk on Wednesday. Common Cause Rhode Island is urging McKee to veto the bill, arguing one of its provisions is unconstitutional.
Various sections of the legislation would increase the powers of the R.I. Ambulance Service Coordinating Advisory Board, a body that oversees emergency medical transportation in the state. It would also require the director of the R.I. Department of Health to provide financial impact statements when setting standards for ambulances.
Emergency doctors have expressed opposition to the bill, warning it could lower standards — and those comments have not sat well with Polisena, a retired firefighter and licensed EMT who supports it.
While testifying before the House Health and Human Services Committee last month, Polisena warned lawmakers that firefighters “are now contemplating on not — I repeat not — transporting to those hospitals where those physicians … work, and are willing to go to other hospitals because, quite frankly, they felt that they were disrespected.”
State Rep. Joshua Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat and member of the committee, was taken aback.
“Did you say that there were EMTs that were or are threatening not to take patients to certain hospitals where certain physicians work, because they felt disrespected?” he asked Polisena, adding, “Understandably, if they were, that’s extremely concerning.”
“No,” Polisena told Giraldo. “What I said was that obviously, a lot of times it’s up to the EMTs to decide what hospitals to go to, depending on the patient’s condition.”
In an interview with Target 12 this week, Polisena again insisted his comments were not a threat, but reiterated that firefighters felt doctors’ criticisms of the bill have been over the line.
Polisena said the state’s emergency medical technicians follow all protocols, and if a patient wants to go to a certain hospital, they’ll be able to go.
Asked whether the comments had been a form of political theater to advance the bill, Polisena said, “No — listen, all due respect, sir, you don’t know me. I don’t stamp my feet to get my way. I try to make a point — sometimes my point might be a little off, but I try to make my point.”
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, argued the text of the bill will not pass constitutional muster because it gives the Ambulance Service Coordinating Advisory Board policymaking powers that legally can only be vested in the governor and other executive branch officials like the Health Department director.
Marion cited a specific line from the bill that he said would make it unconstitutional: “The Ambulance Service Coordinating Advisory Board shall establish standards for the duties and the responsibilities of the physician medical director.”
“Establishing standards is something the executive branch of government does,” Marion said. “‘Shall establish’ — that’s not advisory in nature, that is a mandate.”
Polisena, a former state senator, rejected Marion’s argument. “I don’t agree with him,” he said. “I don’t agree that it interferes with the separation of powers.”
Marion said if McKee vetoes the bill, the legislature could revise it and pass a new version to avoid constitutionality issues. If McKee signs it, he said, someone could sue.
“Ultimately, the governor’s office will bear some of the responsibility of defending the law,” Marion said. “This will be his first time having to go through legislation and make these decisions.”