AG Neronha, Prospect Medical go to war


The uncertain future facing Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence and Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence burst into public view last week.

That was after the Los Angeles-based owner of the hospitals, Prospect Medical Holding, got an advance copy of a highly critical report by Attorney General Peter Neronha. Prospect quickly moved to withdraw its proposed change of ownership in Rhode Island, and to try to block Neronha from releasing his report. A hearing on Prospect’s request is expected next week.

As Neronha acknowledges, the end game in this showdown remains unclear for now. But the latest developments – coming after The Public’s Radio reported on new questions about Prospect’s finances – are noteworthy for a few reasons.

Fatima and RWMC, both safety-net hospitals, are among the largest employers in their respective communities. Rhode Island remains the last state to stand in way of a plan by two of Prospect’s minority owners to gain ownership of the full company. That’s despite support for the deal from a number of local officials and a four-to-one vote in favor by Rhode Island’s Health Services Council.

Supporters credit Prospect with improving the two in-state hospitals after past instability, and Prospect spokesman Bill Fischer called Neronha’s demand for the company to submit at least $120 million in escrow out of bounds.

But Neronha and others point to Prospect’s finances and how Prospect’s majority ownership has taken hundreds of millions in dividends for investors from its chain of 17 hospitals.

It’s fair to wonder whether the state should have viewed Prospect’s 2014 purchase of Fatima and Roger Williams more skeptically. Now, Neronha said he isn’t flinching.

“The people of Rhode Island deserve the truth,” he said. “It is a hard truth: that those who claimed to care about health care here in Rhode Island and around the country cared much more – orders of magnitude more – about lining their own pockets than about the people they purported to serve.”

Health care’s distracted boyfriend

The distracted boyfriend meme has had ample travel on social media, lending itself to the relative amount of attention paid to different things.

The meme was a good metaphor for views of the shifting health care landscape in Rhode Island. The “hot girl” who catches the distracted boyfriend’s fancy is the envisioned academic health system consisting of Lifespan, Care New England and Brown University. (And yes, this mega-plan merits serious scrutiny, in part because of the overarching question of whether a monopolistic entity will be good for consumers.)

I started following the Prospect story last year and got bogged down because of its complexity and competing demands. By that time, bigger out-of-town news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and ProPublica picked up parts of the story. The situation continued to largely elude the attention of most Rhode Islanders. Then, last week, a story once seen as wonky and too complex burst into broader public view.

Piecemeal strategy on RI hospitals

In an interview, AG Neronha said he believes Rhode Island has long suffered from a lack of strategic thinking on the local health care landscape.

“I think it’s absolutely right to say we have approached it in a piecemeal fashion,” he said, “and I’ve been saying we should do otherwise for some time … We can’t continue to try to regulate health care as one-off transactions. It’s a huge mistake.”

Neronha said Rhode Island hasn’t had a written health care strategy since 1989, “and it struck me that if we’re not thinking strategically, I don’t know how we can make great decisions on an individualized basis.”

Census surprise

To the surprise of virtually all Rhode Islanders, we will maintain two U.S. House seats after the 2020 Census. The loss of one was widely expected, but Little Rhody gained about 43,000 residents from 2010 to 2020.

This is good news for the state, since more residents means more federal dollars coming back to Rhode Island. It also spares Gov. Dan McKee a possible challenge from U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, and allows Langevin to take another crack at the seat he first landed in 2000. (Republican Bob Lancia, who made a respectable showing against Langevin last year, has said he plans to try again).

Rep. Carlos Tobon (D-Pawtucket) was teased a few years ago when he suggested using financial incentives to get people to move to Rhode Island. The Ocean State missed out on a loss of representation thanks to the work of Rhode Island’s Complete Count Committee and many volunteers. Now, elected officials might want to consider a greater long-range focus on promoting growth in the smallest state.

Whitehouse not worried about blowback

President Biden made the case to Congress and the American people for an ambitious series of spending initiatives. You can check out annotated versions of the president’s address and the GOP response by Sen. Tim Scott. While Biden’s mix of populism and Keynesian economics may hearten Democrats and especially progressives, it gives pause to Republicans and others concerned by what they consider excessive government spending. Is U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse concerned that President Biden could be courting a mid-term backlash with his many mega-proposals?

“What we’re seeing is very broad support for these programs,” Whitehouse said on Political Roundtable. “The Republicans basically shot their credibility on the debt and deficit question when they blew $2 billion in tax relief for almost entirely very well-heeled individuals and corporations. So they don’t really have much standing to complain. And I think what the American people are looking at is, OK, where is the expenditure going? This is going for things that are incredibly important to them and incredibly popular, which is why over and over again Joe Biden is able to say, ‘Look, this is actually a bipartisan bill even if the Republicans in Congress won’t cooperate, for their own motives.’ Because when you test the various measures, they get a lot of support from Republicans around the country, Republican governors, Republican mayors.”

What’s going on here?

There would be a lot of concern if the General Assembly took important votes with less than half of its members. But Rhode Island’s Health Services Council, which makes recommendations on proposed projects to the state Health Department director, is an obscure panel. So the way in which fewer than half of the HSC has twice decided significant votes in slightly more than a year has flown under the radar.

As I reported last week, one of those votes – on an inpatient rehab facility in Johnston that a state consultant called unnecessary – remains the subject of a legal challenge. Perhaps even more striking, only one of the five Health Services Council members who took part in the April 6 vote on Prospect Medical would comment for my story.

New candidates rising

Brown University professor, RI NOW president and beauty pageant expert Hilary Levey Friedman is looking to add another credential: General Assembly member.

In a statement last week, Levey Friedman signaled her intention to be a legislative candidate next year, although the precise office remains undetermined. (Sen. Gayle Goldin of Providence is widely expected to be a candidate for secretary of state in 2022.)

“I have the utmost respect for my current Representative and Senator,” Levey Friedman said in a statement, “but as we await the results of the Census, I want to be ready. I plan to be out this spring and summer knocking on doors to hear directly from East Siders what issues matter to them and which direction they would like to see our community move.”

I-195 District update

Via comms ace Cara Cromwell: the mystery grocery store on Parcel 6 (which may or may not be a Trader Joe’s) is expected to open in spring 2022. While two floors remain vacant at Point 225 (the Wexford building), “There has been a lot of interest recently and there are some promising leads.”

Diossa in perpetuity

A committee has been formed to raise entirely private funds for a portrait of James Diossa, the first Latino mayor of predominantly Latino Central Falls.

“Mayor Diossa was transformative for the City of Central Falls,” said state Rep. Joshua Giraldo, who was chief of staff during the Diossa administration and is chairing the committee. “From bringing our City out of bankruptcy, to ethics reform, to building affordable housing, to reviving our main streets, and restoring a sense of civic pride in our residents, Mayor Diossa will be remembered as a humble leader who truly made Central Falls the Comeback City. We’re proud to be raising funds to help honor his legacy with the first mayoral portrait to be hung in City Hall.”

Central Falls native Dino Ramos will make the painting, with an unveiling expected in May.

Pet robots

Welcome to the future. Max Kozlov, a former intern at The Public’s Radio, has a provocative interview on the growing trend of robotic pets.

As author Kate Darling tells him, “Social robots are a very emotionally persuasive technology. I think that that’s really where we need to watch out, because we might very soon have companies trying to manipulate people through social robots. That could have implications for privacy and data security, it could have implications for this emotionally persuasive marketing. I think that there are a lot of issues that we are just not talking enough about, because we’re talking so much about robots ‘coming to replace us’ that we’re not seeing these other things.”

Check it out at www.behavioralscientist.org/what-our-pets-can-tell-us-about-our-future-with-robots.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Find him on Twitter@IanDon. To read a longer version of this column, see thepublicsradio.org

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