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RI attorney general investigating Eleanor Slater Hospital problems

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office has launched an investigation into the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital, Target 12 has learned.

The attorney general’s office confirmed Monday investigators have been meeting with personnel for several weeks to discuss various aspects of the state-run hospital’s operations.

“We’re very concerned about patient care,” Neronha told Target 12. “We’re taking steps to get answers, and at this point, we’ll be in a position to share those answers with the public.”

Neronha’s office has been gathering information from a variety of sources regarding past and ongoing operations at the hospital, according to Neronha spokesperson Kristy dosReis.

The attorney general did not provide specifics about what exactly he is investigating, but his office has a mandate to investigate both patient-care and financial issues.

On the patient side, Neronha oversees the Office of the Health Care Advocate, which has the authority to intervene and investigate complaints related to the delivery of health care. On the money side, the attorney general oversees a Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which investigates, enforces and prosecutes laws related to fraud of the state Medicaid program.

Target 12 has independently confirmed both divisions are involved in the Slater probe.

“This office has broad responsibilities in health and patient care, including regulatory, civil, and criminal jurisdiction, through our Medicaid Fraud Control and Patient Abuse Unit and under our statutory authority as the state’s Health Care Advocate,” dosReis said.

The publicly funded hospital system, which provides psychiatric and complex medical care through its Zambarano unit in Burrillville and multiple other units in Cranston, has been riddled with controversy in recent months.

As Target 12 reported last week, a hospital doctor recently accused a union leader of threatening him. At least one union has voted “no confidence” in the hospital’s administrative leadership. And Katheryn Power, who had led the state agency overseeing the hospital, resigned Friday.

At the heart of the controversy is a bitter disagreement over the future of the hospital.  

Union groups have called for the state to slow down an ongoing effort to downsize and restructure the hospital, as Gov. Dan McKee has proposed eliminating 100 full-time positions and allocating $65 million to build a new nursing home-type facility to replace Zambarano.

Opponents of the plan often suggest – without much evidence – the state is actually trying to shut down Zambarano completely, which includes a plot to force patients out of the hospital against their will.

Hospital administrators, meanwhile, are adamant no such effort is underway. But they argue there are patients currently living at the facility – sometimes for decades – who could and should be receiving the same level of care outside of a hospital setting, in accordance with federal law dating back to the 1960s. The hospital has stopped admitting new patients at Zambarano for about a year.

Complicating the situation is the hospital’s finances. In fall 2019, the state stopped billing Medicaid for services at the hospital after an employee raised concerns that the state was out of federal compliance. At the time, the state had more psychiatric patients than medical patients, technically making it ineligible for federal funding through the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state subsequently rebalanced its patient count and filed an amended plan, which took the federal government nearly a year to approve. During that time, the state backfilled costs once covered by federal funds with more than $100 million in state revenue.

As of Friday, the state still hadn’t started billing for Medicaid – despite receiving the blessing of the federal government – as state officials continue to review which services are eligible for reimbursements both now and retroactively.

Last week, McKee tapped Womazetta Jones, current secretary of R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to lead the embattled agency overseeing the hospital until the state can find a permanent director.

Asked about the investigation Monday, McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said the governor “shares the attorney general’s concerns.”

“That’s why, last week, he deployed Womazetta Jones to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals and make recommendations on issues including departmental policy, operations, staffing and quality standards for patient care,” Palagi said. “The health and safety of patients at Eleanor Slater and Zambarano is a top priority for the Governor. He and his administration are committed to ensuring the Attorney General can conduct a full and thorough review.”

R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees Eleanor Slater, has also provided documents and information to the attorney general, according to spokesperson Randy Edgar.

“BHDDH has received three separate requests since mid-March from the AG,” Edgar wrote in an email. “The department has provided a number of documents and is gathering the remaining documents.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the investigation would last, but the attorney general underscored that his inquiry was designed to help patients.

“What they should know is this: we’re looking into it, we’re taking it very seriously, we’re very concerned about the patient care,” Neronha said.

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

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 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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