PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State Rep. David Place said Thursday he’s concerned about Gov. Dan McKee’s pick to lead the agency overseeing Eleanor Slater Hospital, claiming the nominee has played a role in trying to shut down the state-run medical facility.
The Burrillville Republican, who represents patients living in the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater, has long criticized the state’s handling of the hospital, a publicly funded health care system that’s come under intense public scrutiny in recent months.
Most of that criticism has been directed at former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, but Place is now scrutinizing McKee for his decision to nominate Richard Charest as the next director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities — which oversees Eleanor Slater.
“I am disappointed in the appointment,” Place told Target 12 Thursday. “By all reports, he’s been the primary adviser of the executives currently at BHDDH, the same executives I’d say have been doing the shadow close over the last year-plus.”
Charest, a longtime executive at Landmark Medical Center before retiring in 2016, has received about $53,250 to privately consult at Eleanor Slater since August, according to a state spokesperson.
Place argues Charest’s involvement during that time suggests he was part of the former administration’s effort to shut down Zambarano, an idea first floated in 2019 and then later included as one of three potential options for the state-run hospital system in the latter half of 2020. (The state eventually proposed building a new long-term skilled nursing facility to replace Zambarano, an idea that has since been put on hold.)
McKee’s decision to stick with someone who had that type of involvement was a mistake, Place said.
“He’s just bringing someone else in to do the exact same thing,” Place added. “That’s what I’m seeing based on this appointment.”
McKee spokesperson Alana O’Hare declined to comment.
As BHDDH director, Charest would oversee several aspects of the state’s health care operations, along with its $480 million budget and 1,100 employees. But if confirmed by the Senate, Charest’s biggest and most immediate challenge would be to stabilize Eleanor Slater, which has been in turmoil for months.
The state hospital system, which provides psychiatric and medical care through Zambarano and three more units in Cranston, has dominated headlines for issues related to finances, workforce and building conditions. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha is investigating the hospital, examining issues related to patient care and finances, and legislative oversight committees are leading separate inquiries into the various problems.
Place and Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, a fellow Republican also representing Burrillville, are staunch supporters of protecting Zambarano. In addition to providing care and a home for dozens of patients, the Burrillville facility also serves as an important job center for the region.
McKee met with Place and de la Cruz after becoming governor in March, giving Place some hope about his leadership and the future of the facility.
“He has been more responsive in one week then the prior administration has been in years,” Place tweeted in March. “The first and often the most important step in problem solving is understanding the problem. He does.”
Place said Thursday is now concerned McKee’s approach is beginning to look no different than Raimondo’s.
“I have serious concerns that the governor isn’t changing direction,” Place said Thursday.
The House lawmaker does not have a direct legislative vote on whether to confirm Charest, as the advise and consent power lies with the Senate; de la Cruz, who gets to vote on the nomination, said it was her policy to try and not comment on gubernatorial nominees until they appear before the Senate.
“I need to learn about the candidate, his credentials and history to make informed commentary — praise or criticism,” de la Cruz said. “Also, I look forward to hearing from the public about this nominee. Once that happens, I will let you know whether I will be supporting this particular nominee to lead this most important agency.”