PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A veteran lawmaker’s pursuit of legal documents that could shed light on whether the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital improperly billed Medicaid for years has made its way to the R.I. Attorney General’s Office.
Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Louis DiPalma on Wednesday filed a complaint with the attorney general, challenging Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones’s denial of his public-records request to obtain work produced by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.
According to documents obtained by Target 12, DiPalma sent a letter to Jones on Wednesday saying he was “extremely disappointed in the response.”
“There are no words which truly express my disappointment,” wrote DiPalma, D-Middletown. “This is only the first instance in my 13 years in the General Assembly where I have been denied a request for information.”
A spokesperson for Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jones hired the California law firm for $380,000 in November 2019 to examine potential legal issues related to Medicaid billing by the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees the state-run Slater Hospital system.
The law firm was hired a few months after a state employee raised concerns that Rhode Island was not complying with federal law prohibiting the state from having more psychiatric patients than medical patients at the hospital, among other issues. The state-run hospital provides psychiatric and complex medical care in Cranston and through its Zambarano unit in Burrillville.
The findings of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips have since remained under wraps. In a denial of DiPalma’s request for their work earlier this month, Jones claimed through her lawyer that the information was protected by “attorney-client privilege.”
“At the request of Secretary Womazetta Jones, I am writing to confirm that EOHHS invokes its attorney-client privilege with Manatt and thus, declines to submit attorney-client communications to the Senate Oversight Committee, which would obviate said privilege,” EOHHS executive legal counsel Lisa Martinelli wrote in the response.
DiPalma made a second attempt at getting the documents by filing a request under the Access to Public Records Act. But Jones again refused to comply, saying through her attorney that the materials are shielded under multiple exemptions in the law, including “client/attorney relationship.”
Shortly after the state employee raised questions about Slater’s Medicaid compliance, state officials stopped billing the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which has since cost Rhode Island more than $100 million in state money. (For perspective, that’s about how much Gov. Dan McKee expects to gain in his proposed budget from taxing forgiven Payroll Protection Program loan proceeds over $150,000 along with the first $10,200 of unemployment insurance benefits.)
Despite the internal concerns over billing at the hospital, CMS never audited the state’s Medicaid program, and the federal agency recently approved an amended plan allowing Rhode Island to restart billing. It’s possible some portion of the Eleanor Slater money could be recouped retroactively, but how much still isn’t clear.
For more than a week, a CMS spokesperson has not answered multiple questions related to Medicaid billing at the hospital, saying her office was “still working to receive approvals” to respond. A follow-up email Thursday asking who needed to approve the responses was not immediately answered.
The billing issue is at the root of a bitter feud between union groups and administrators over the future of Slater. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha has launched an investigation into the hospital, and McKee has tasked Jones with conducting a review of operations.
The hospital has also been the focus of multiple oversight hearings in the General Assembly. DiPalma is spearheading the Senate’s inquiry, and he remains convinced that the information provided by the outside legal firm could help lawmakers and Rhode Islanders alike better understand some of the underlying financial tied to the hospital.
The attorney general’s office will now solicit information from both DiPalma and Jones regarding the senator’s complaint before making a final decision about whether the secretary violated the public records law when she denied the senator’s request.
DiPalma — who was a finalist to McKee’s pick for Rhode Island lieutenant governor — made clear he wouldn’t give up easily.
“Anyone who knows me, knows that I will explore all legal means to ascertain the facts and data, which I believe are critical to my role serving as chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, Gov’t Ethics and Oversight, and more generally, a state senator,” he wrote in his letter to Jones. “I’m sorry it has come to this, though I must do my job to which I’ve been assigned/elected.”