Innovation Ecosystem

Life outside the news bubble

The sagas of 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket, Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, and the turmoil at DCYF threaten to expose the ongoing policy failures of the McKee administration – and the rise of AG Peter Neronha

Photo by Richard Asinof [file photo]

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, at his office, has become a forceful public health advocate on behalf of Rhode Islanders, sounding the alarm about the looming crises in health care.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/24/23
The latest chapter in the sordid tale of the forced sale of the state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket will take place on Monday evening, April 24, when the Woonsocket City Council meets in executive session to decide if the city will exercise its right of first refusal to claim the property, which had been auctioned off for $730,000 on March 15.
How closely had DCAMM Director Patten and DOA Director Thorsen been coordinating with Woonsocket Mayor Baldelli-Hunt over the planned eviction of a community agency and then the forced sale of the 181 Cumberland St. property? Does the R.I. Attorney General need to investigate possible malfeasance by public officials? How will the McKee administration plan to deal with the continuing demand for emergency shelter and the need for behavioral health care and social services in Woonsocket and northern Rhode Island? Will Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi support the budget requests by Attorney General Peter Neronha for an additional $2 million for his office’s operations? What is the status of the work underway by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner to develop the data around Medicaid premiums for behavioral health care?
Amidst the crush of legislative bills seeking to become law during the 2023 session at the General Assembly, one accomplishment of note – to go along with the passage by the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-4 vote on Thursday of legislation to repeal current legal barriers to prevent the state form providing health insurance coverage to state employees and Medicaid recipients seeking abortions – was the passage by the House allowing the state to join an interstate physical therapy compact, making it easier for physical therapists to work in Rhode Island if they are licensed to practice in other member states.
With all the coverage of the Boston Marathon, one of the ongoing realities is the critical role that physical therapists play in helping runners – of all shapes, sizes, ages, and nationalities – train and overcome injuries from the sport of running.
It was astonishing to listen to WPRO’s Dan Yorke’s radio talk show program on Wednesday afternoon, April 19, as he attempted to navigate his way through a conversation around plans to launch a new harm reduction center in Providence in 2024, displaying his total lack of comprehension – call it ignorance – about the recovery community in Rhode Island. Despite all the ongoing news coverage – and the in-depth reporting by many news outlets in the state, Yorke was clueless. Among his many gaffes was referring to one of his guests as “Dennis Weber,” giving him the last name of the organization he worked for. Further, Yorke could not grasp the idea that the new center was a collaboration involving CODAC Behavioral Health, which has been in operation for more than 50 years.
For this week’s dinner gathering, I envision Yorke, his colleagues Tara Granahan and Matt Allen, having to sit down and talk with CODAC’s Linda Hurley, Project Weber Renew’s Colleen Ndoye, and RICAREs Sandy Valentine, with Channel 10’s Alison Bologna hosting the conversation. The idea is that the talk show hosts would have to listen, and instead of talking at people, engage with people.

WOONSOCKET – There is a special meeting of the City Council scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday evening, April 24, during which the City Council will go into executive session to discuss whether or not the city will exercise its “right of first refusal” to purchase the former state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St., which had been sold at auction on March 15 for $730,000.

There are still many unanswered questions regarding the sale of the property, which used to be the home of Community Care Alliance – until the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals had them evicted, on orders of the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance, whose director, David Patten, is currently out on medical leave.

Patten’s leave followed his allegedly “shocking” behavior during a March 10 business trip to Philadelphia, when he and outgoing Director James Thorsen of the R.I. Department of Administration visited a facility being developed by Scout Ltd., the contractor leading development efforts for the Cranston Street Armory. [Thorsen’s last day on the job will be Friday, April 28.]

The underlying – and as yet untold – conflict at 181 Cumberland St. has much to do with the failure of the McKee administration to develop a consistent housing policy to address the continuing crises in affordable housing and homelessness – and the apparent willingness of the McKee administration and legislative leaders to throw the state’s behavioral health system of care under the proverbial bus.

At a March 20 hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Director Thorsen put the blame for the breakdown of the state’s behavioral health infrastructure on the failure of community agencies to pay rent at state-owned facilities. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A culture war on behavioral health infrastructure.”]

However, in the news bubble in which so many of us seem to reside in relative comfort, the story about Thorsen’s theory attracted scant attention by the Rhode Island news media – or, for that matter, from the defenders of the nonprofit community, such as United Way of Rhode Island. For their part, legislative leadership seemed willing to accept the bizarre rationale provided by Thorsen when questioned in an early December 2022 meeting about the reasons behind the eviction.

What will it take for the scandal of how the safety net became unraveled in Woonsocket to get the news media to pay attention? And, how is that related to the ongoing efforts by the state Housing Department to support the redevelopment of the former Memorial Hospital property as an emergency shelter – until Attorney General Peter Neronha stepped in and filed a lawsuit to prevent the property from being foreclosed upon?

Questions that need to be asked
There are many questions that still remain to be answered:

• Will the City of Woonsocket exercise its right of first refusal and purchase the 181 Cumberland St. property? For how much money?

Will Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who collapsed last week from unknown causes and was taken by ambulance to Landmark Medical Center, attend the executive session of the City Council?

• Will the city’s ultimate decision about whether to take control of the property reveal how intimately involved Mayor Baldelli-Hunt may have been in the machinations behind the forced sale of 181 Cumberland St.?

• If the Mayor is not able for medical reasons to attend the executive session, which city officials will be carrying the water for her?

More questions to be asked
During the executive session of the special meeting of the City Council, the sale of 153 Hamlet St. is also on the agenda to be discussed, which appears to be related to the proposed plan by Gov. Dan McKee’s administration in its spending projects recommended in the proposed FY 2024 to support building a new combined police and fire station in Woonsocket, using federal ARPA funds.

• With Mayor Baldelli-Hunt’s health in question, and with the impending departure of DOA Director Thorsen, and with the current medical leave for DCAMM Director Patten, what is the status of funding for the proposed police and fire complex?

• What is the financial health of the city, given the $2.2 million investments required by the City of Woonsocket to keep its municipal wastewater facility up and running, following the lawsuit brought by AG Neronha and DEM to halt the most recent dumping of raw sewage into the Blackstone River?

• What are the current housing, social services, and behavioral health needs for the residents of Woonoscket and northern Rhode Island? And, what kinds of investments, if any, are the McKee administration planning to make?

The Attorney General to the rescue
Some two months after ConvergenceRI published an in-depth, two-part interview with R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, the rest of the news media seems to have caught up with the news flow. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “AG Neronha sounds the alarm,” and “A public health advocate for all RIers.”]

First, Boston Globe columnist Dan McGowan wrote: “R.I.’s attorney general is frustrated: ‘We’re asking for help, and we’re not getting it.’” And then, WPRI’s Tim White, spurred on by McGowan’s column, featured AG Peter Neronha on the most recent Newsmakers program.

The backdrop, of course, is Attorney General Neronha’s continued pubic health advocacy on energy, on the environment, and on health care – and his efforts to garner more money from the Legislature to staff his office, a request that Gov. McKee has failed to support in his proposed FY 2024 budget.

In the last few months, Attorney General Neronha has:

• Sued the city of Wonosocket for its role in dumping raw sewage into the Blackstone River.

• Intervened in a Washington state court case to ensure that Rhode Islanders have access to the abortion drug, Mifepristone.

• Filed a lawsuit to block the pending foreclosure of the former Memorial Hospital Property.

• Sounded the alarm about the pending health crises afflicting the health care delivery system in Rhode Island, including the lack of primary care physicians, and the threat from private equity owners closing down Roger Williams and Fatima hospitals.

As the safety net continues to unravel
At the State House this week, hundreds of advocates gathered to promote the passage of legislation to increase the state budget by $200 million to support rate increases for providers of home-based services for disabled patients. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “As the world turns for Medicaid budget.”]

At the same time, the state is grappling with how to recertify some 365,000 Rhode Islanders currently receiving Medicaid for their primary health insurance coverage. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The big Medicaid eligibility test.”]

The news that Gov. Dan McKee had nominated Ashley Deckert to serve as the next director of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, replacing Kevin Aucoin, who had been serving as acting director since 2019, was marred by the reporting of a tragic death of a 15-year-old female, allegedly from a fentanyl-laced pill she had been given by an adult at the Motel 6 in Warwick. Her death raised new questions about the unraveling of the safety net for children under the care of R.I. DCYF.

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