PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones is resigning, becoming the latest Raimondo-era cabinet member to exit the McKee administration.
Jones, who said she’s leaving for family reasons, was hired in 2019 by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo to lead the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees six state departments and upwards of $3 billion in general revenue and federal funding. Her last day will be May 1.
“It was an honor to lead EOHHS, and the health and human services agencies under our umbrella, using our three guiding principles – choice, race equity and community engagement,” Jones said in a statement, also thanking Gov. Dan McKee for his leadership and support of her work.
Jones added that while she “would have loved to continue serving” in the secretary’s job, “I have family needs that require me to return home to Chicago.”
McKee’s office said an interim secretary will be named between now and May 1, and that Jones will work closely with him to ensure a successful transition.
Jones is leaving after more than two years in state government where she focused heavily on advocating for the advancement of racial and health equity, while also dealing with state operations including the massive Medicaid program that helps fund everything from nursing homes to caring for children under state custody.
“While there has been positive transformation in our state’s health care, behavioral healthcare, and social service systems that underpin the health and well-being of every resident in Rhode Island, more work is needed,” Jones said.
After McKee ascended to the state’s top job a year ago, Jones became the governor’s point person for Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state-run hospital that’s been dogged by controversy in recent years.
“Throughout the first year of my administration, Secretary Jones stepped up whenever we needed her, particularly as we took bold action to begin addressing longstanding issues at Eleanor Slater Hospital,” McKee said in a statement praising Jones.
Jones’ efforts on Slater earned her trust from McKee, but also scrutiny from rank-and-file hospital workers, who have criticized state leadership for failing to fix many of the ongoing problems at the hospital.
Last summer, Jones overhauled hospital leadership and more recently launched an effort to relicense the facility to establish a standalone psychiatric hospital with the hope it could shore up Eleanor Slater’s financial woes. The proposal is currently under regulatory and legislative consideration.
Jones also clashed at times with state lawmakers, including Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Sen. Louis DiPalma, who slammed the secretary for withholding a legal review into the financial problems at the hospital.
More recently, Jones criticized House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio for fist-bumping in front her at a public event in which she was invited to attend but not speak.
“I would encourage the two of them to think about what was behind the fist bump; and it being [done] in front of me, rather than behind me,” she told the website ConvergenceRI last month.
“I think that they need to think about: Was it disrespectful? Am I owed an apology? And, that is for the fist bump [and for] not being allowed to speak,” she added.
Jones’ departure marks the latest in a string of exits among high-ranking McKee administrators over the past year, opening another vacancy within the governor’s cabinet.
The vacancies are concentrated inside health and human services, including the Health Department, Human Services, Children, Youth and Families and Healthy Aging. The vacancy in DCYF, where Kevin Aucoin serves as interim director, has gone unfilled since Trista Piccola left in 2019 – nearly a year before McKee took office.
Separately on Monday, McKee hinted that R.I. Police Col. James Manni could be stepping aside soon, although he did not offer specifics. Manni has declined to comment.