Neronha warns healthcare ‘on precipice of disaster’

Posted 6/6/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: During a fiery speech Tuesday in the House of Representatives’ chamber at the State House, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha warned of the growing healthcare crisis …

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Neronha warns healthcare ‘on precipice of disaster’


STORY OF THE WEEK: During a fiery speech Tuesday in the House of Representatives’ chamber at the State House, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha warned of the growing healthcare crisis facing the state. There are many symptoms: a lack of primary care physicians; silos and insufficient capacity in the state bureaucracy; a paucity of dental coverage for needy children; and the overreliance on Medicaid and Medicare, instead of private insurance, in paying for coverage, posing a competitive disadvantage compared with Connecticut and Massachusetts. Neronha repeatedly mentioned the financial uncertainty facing the CharterCARE hospitals -- Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. The two are top employers and major taxpayers in their respective communities, so insolvency would have far-reaching effects beyond patients. Neronha last year sued CharterCARE’s parent, California-based Prospect Medical Holdings, alleging the company had fallen $24 million behind in paying vendors, jeopardizing the hospitals and patients. This array of issues explains why the AG has increased from one to six the number of lawyers he has working on healthcare, including one who is a bankruptcy specialist. Although Neronha has for years sounded a call for long-term statewide healthcare planning, his tone was sharper during the Healthcare Summit convened by legislative leaders. “We are on the precipice of a disaster,” Neronha said, adding that the situation can be fixed -- but not without a sense of urgency.

IT’S THE ECONOMY: Forty years after Rhode Island voters rejected the Greenhouse Compact, a 1,000-page plan (conceived by Ira Magaziner, the father of U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner) to seed the high-wage jobs of the future, Neronha argued that 1) a stronger economy would make addressing the various healthcare challenges a lot easier; and 2) not enough initiative is being brought to strengthening the economy. Sure, Rhode Island is a fantastic place to live (if you have a solid job), as Neronha noted. But there’s been little headway for decades in improving under-performing schools, overcoming NIMBYism, catalyzing the Ocean State’s small size, or until recently, addressing what became a severe housing crisis. 

 DECISION TIME: Steward Health Care, whose eight Massachusetts hospitals face uncertainty due to a recent bankruptcy filing, has become the poster child for the negative effects of private equity on healthcare. That’s why the idea of returning the CharterCARE hospitals -- Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima -- to nonprofit ownership may seem like an appealing idea. But state regulators remain skeptical about the Atlanta-based Centurion’s Foundation proposal to buy CharterCARE, due in part to ongoing financial uncertainty and possible insolvency. The deadline for a decision by the Department of Health and Office of Attorney General is June 11.

 SMITH HILL: With the House Finance Committee slated to vote last Friday night on the revised legislative budget, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remained absent from the State House, even after an expected return this past week. In a statement last week, he said, “In April, I shared publicly that I have cancer. I stated at the time that I have a good prognosis, and I expect to fully recover from this insidious disease. At the end of April, I contracted a virus, and have had subsequent health complications stemming from this affliction. Unfortunately, those complications have prohibited my return to the Senate at this time, but I am receiving treatment and hope to return soon. I have every intention of running for reelection this year and, if successful, will again ask my colleagues for their support to continue to serve as President of the Senate in 2025. I am deeply engaged in all aspects of Senate business by telephone throughout the day on an everyday basis. I am in regular contact with our incredible committee chairs and my colleagues in the Senate, the outstanding Senate staff, and the Speaker of the House, Joseph Shekarchi …”

PAYDAY: President Ruggerio seems to be the main obstacle to a Senate vote on efforts to curb payday lending. Near the end of session In 2021, he seemed decidedly uninterested in the related bill, telling me he hadn’t looked at it and didn’t know it was filed. The Economic Progress Institute is nonetheless rallying support in calling for an up or down vote in both chambers of legislation to diminish payday lenders ability to charge the equivalent of 260% in annual interest. Last year, the House offered overwhelming support, but the measure didn’t get a vote in the Senate. EPI says it has support from Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Secretary of State Gregg Amore and General Treasurer James Diossa, along with almost 60 community, labor, religious and business groups, and others.”We are asking the Speaker and Senate President, as devoted public servants and our leaders, to please hear the call of Rhode Islanders from all across the state, to let democracy decide this one and allow the votes on payday lending reform this year,” EPI Executive Director Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies said in a statement. “We have engaged in dialogue and conversation with the payday lending industry in good faith.However, the fact remains that this is a blatant predatory practice that benefits the industry and harms Rhode Islanders and the Rhode Island economy. We also have engaged with local financial institutions that not only provide alternatives, but financial literacy programs that actually help Rhode Islanders.”

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: State Rep. Brianna Henries (D-East Providence) first won election when the Rhode Island Political Cooperative made a series of legislative gains in 2020. Emboldened by that success, Matt Brown and other co-op aligned candidates tried doubling down in 2022, only to experience setbacks amid victories by progressive Democrats who were separate and apart from the co-op. The public profile of the co-op and Brown, who left Rhode Island after an ill-fated U.S. Senate run in 2006, has faded since then. Henries this week announced her decision not to seek re-election, using a tweet to tout her efforts and to say she’s moving into “a new season of life, embracing marriage and the prospect of motherhood.” Jenni Azanero Furtado, chair of the East Providence School Committee, announced a run for the seat held by Henries in January.

CANADIAN DRUGS: On Tuesday, the RI Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Everything old is new again since Rhode Island was touted back in 2004 as the first state that made it possible to bring in Canadian drugs, and none other than then-Secretary of State Matt Brown went on some cross-border trips with seniors while trying to avoid more costly American prescriptions.

TRUMP VERDICT: Reaction in Rhode Island broke along expected lines. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed via statement: “Today, a jury of twelve American citizens found former President Trump guilty of thirty-four felony counts. After a full and fair trial, during which all had a chance to testify, review the evidence and listen to the arguments of the defense and the prosecution, our system of justice has spoken.” State GOP Chairman Joe Powers via statement called the verdict “a part of what President Trump has accurately described as a 'witch hunt.’ This relentless pursuit of President Trump is an attempt to undermine his achievements and distract from the real issues facing our nation. We trust that the higher courts will overturn this politically motivated decision. Our faith in the judicial system remains strong, and we believe that justice will be served in the end.”

FEDERAL MATTERS: U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha, who was appointed by President Biden in 2021, joined me on Political Roundtable this week to discuss the Washington Bridge, the probe by his office into DCYF, guns, and what it’s like pursuing the rule of law in an age when millions of Americans don’t agree on basic facts. Cunha’s predecessor, Attorney General Peter Neronha (who cannot seek re-election due to term limits) tells me he encouraged Cunha to think about running for AG, but Cunha offered an opaque answer when he asked if he might get into politics: “My only focus is doing the job that I’ve been appointed to do. I feel completely blessed to have the chance to do this job every day, and I hope I have a good bit of time yet to do it. I feel like we’re doing great work, we’re making good progress, and we’re heading in the right direction.”

SCOTUS: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a longtime critic of the U.S. Supreme Court, so he’s closely followed recent news reports at flags flown at two homes of Justice Samuel Alito. Whitehouse offered this reaction to the decision by Chief Justice John Roberts to decline to meet with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss judicial ethics in his capacity leading the Judicial Conference: “In this case, there’s not a good answer: the Judicial Conference is a body created by Congress and funded by Congress, enforcing laws passed by Congress. It is an administrative body, not an adjudicative body.  Even if there were a proper separation of powers argument here, which I don’t believe, it would not extend to the Conference. All this means is that the work must continue until we have a Supreme Court that applies to itself basic tenets of rule of law: honest fact-finding and neutral decision-making. That really should not be hard.  It’s a tell that they’ve made it so hard.”

SHORELINE: Coastal communities in Rhode Island are facing growing costs for the beach erosion caused by winter storms, as my colleague Alex Nunes reports, leading some people to ask, “Dude, where’s my beach?” Alex also caught up with a photographer who captures what is being lost and he has the deets on another shoreline squabble.

ARTS: Shauna Duffy, co-executive director of AS220, and David Beauchesne, executive director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, talk about the squeeze on arts organizations after the pandemic and how they hope for some relief in the state budget.

KICKER: The great Boston chef Jasper White, who died recently at 69, was aptly remembered for popularizing the food and flavors of New England. Less well known is how White (and another star chief in Boston, Lydia Shire) cut their teeth while working at the Biltmore Hotel back in the day. Pot au Feu owner Bob Burke remembers White as a chef who, at a time when French, Italian and Asian food were popular, turned inward instead of outward, a bigger than life personality with a great laugh. Burke met White during a Providence-Boston restaurant challenge in the ’90s, when then-Mayor Buddy Cianci put 40 Rhode Island chefs on a bus to Locke-Ober, a famed dining destination. One suspects a good time was had by all.

politics, Donnis, RIAC


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