Talking Politics

Major moves in the R.I. healthcare landscape

By Ian Donnis
Posted 6/24/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: Thursday was the day to buy a lottery ticket if you predicted two key developments involving Rhode Island’s healthcare landscape. Brown University and the state’s …

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Talking Politics

Major moves in the R.I. healthcare landscape


STORY OF THE WEEK: Thursday was the day to buy a lottery ticket if you predicted two key developments involving Rhode Island’s healthcare landscape. Brown University and the state’s largest hospital group, Lifespan, announced that it will be renamed as Brown University Health. Meanwhile, two state agencies approved the sale of two cash-strapped local hospitals to an Atlanta nonprofit, although the deal includes a lengthy list of conditions.

On the surface, these stories may appear unrelated, although both involve the challenge of improving and financially solidifying the delivery of healthcare in the state. The Lifespan-Brown rebranding seems to be a way of achieving some of the goals of the merger rejected by state and federal regulators in 2022, without having to thread the regulatory needle. As Lifespan President/CEO John Fernandez told my colleague Lynn Arditi, the rebranding is similar to how other hospital systems around the U.S. are taking the names of medical schools while continuing to operate as separate organizations. Brown plans to commit $150 million over seven years, and the university’s name is seen as an advantage in attracting doctors and scientists.

The future remains hazier for the two CharterCARE hospitals, Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima. A proposal by the Centurion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Atlanta, to buy CharterCARE from Prospect Medical Holdings of California was okayed by Attorney General Peter Neronha and the Rhode Island Department of Health. But the deal will not move ahead unless Centurion agrees to dozens of conditions, some of them involving the commitment of tens of millions of dollars. (Prospect has also been ordered to pay $17 million for outstanding bills from vendors.)

The main union at CharterCARE, United Nurses and Allied Professionals, remains staunchly opposed to the Centurion takeover, citing how it would be financed with debt and how the foundation lacks hospital management experience. And as I recently reported, Neronha said it is unclear if Centurion would be able to save the hospitals from bankruptcy. Gov. Dan McKee told Kim Kalunian earlier this week he was hopeful for the Centurion deal, but it’s unclear if things will go back to the drawing board – or if the state has a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario.

FISCAL FUTURE: Rhode Island lawmakers have enjoyed a holiday in recent years from the perennial deficits that typically haunt the state budget. Massive amounts of federal COVID aid fueled at least three consecutive budget surpluses – something that hasn’t happened in who knows how many years. The $13.9 billion spending signed into law this week by Gov. McKee is 50% bigger than the last pre-pandemic budget. So now with the expiration of the COVID-era money, can the state really sustain the heightened level of spending? “I point out that a lot of people, myself, were very concerned about this year’s budget, and we ended up with a surplus this year,” House Speaker Joe Shekarchi noted during an interview on Political Roundtable. He said that offering increased Medicaid reimbursements in one year, rather than the three proposed by McKee, will bring more than $120 million additional federal dollars into the state. “It goes to wages for Medicaid, providers and people who take care of the elderly, the sick, the disabled, children,” Shekarchi said. “And that money will be recycled and re-spent in the economy, and I think you’ll see a positive effect.”

MR. SPEAKER: Some other highlights from our interview:

While state DOT Director Peter Alviti touted the ability of traffic engineers to smooth traffic snarls, I-195 eastbound frequently backs up, and rush hour traffic around Providence is far worse than before the emergency closing of I-195 west in December. Despite this, Shekarchi said he remains satisfied with Alviti’s performance: “I don’t know how much anybody else could have done than what he’s done so far.”

With more than $2 million in his campaign account and a stated view that he doesn’t consider the speakership a terminal position, Shekarchi and his political future remain open. The Warwick Democrat said he would consider a run for governor in 2026 if Gov. McKee doesn’t seek re-election. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is “100% committed to running” for another term, Shekarchi said, adding, “I can be very content staying as speaker of the House. I enjoy the job very much.”

Rhode Island remains in the early stages of trying to confront its housing crisis, even with the passage of lots of bills and the allocation of a boatload of money. Asked how long it will take to make a significant difference, Shekarchi said in part, “I think that it took over 30 years for the state to get in this mess. We haven’t done any significant land use reform in over 30 years, since the early 1990s. It’s going to take some time, but I think all the elements are there. I talked to builders. I talked to advocates from the nonprofit sector, the profit section, the private sector, the public housing, the housing authorities. Everyone is excited about the [legislative] package. Everyone thinks that we have cut down dramatically on red tape and we’ve allowed a lot of individuals, hopefully, to take marginally buildable land and make it buildable.”

ACROSS THE ROTUNDA: Change is coming to the Rhode Island Senate, even with President Dominick Ruggerio’s announcement this week that he will run for another term. “Serving in the state Senate is a tremendous honor,” Ruggerio – who plans a July 2 signature-gathering event at his campaign HQ, 1355 Douglas Ave., North Providence – said in a statement. “I work each day to deliver results for the people of North Providence and Providence, and I hope they will do me the honor of supporting me again this year.”

Ruggerio, 75, vanquished progressive challenger Lenny Cioe in 2022 and he remains a strong favorite for re-election. But a generational shift can be seen in the departure of such Sens. as Josh Miller, 70, of Cranston, who is leaving about a year after a vandalism incident. The longtime senator touted his record after disclosing plans a few days earlier to Pride celebrants in Providence. Other senators not seeking re-election include Frank Lombardi of Cranston and Roger Picard of Woonsocket. The precise timing remains unclear, but Ruggerio (if re-elected) is widely expected to pass off the Senate leadership over the course of his next two-year term, potentially opening the door for votes on payday lending and a ban on new sales of semi-automatic rifles.

While Majority Leader Ryan Pearson of Cumberland downplays fallout from an attempt to hasten the leadership change and he announced his re-election run this week, the view among a number on Smith Hill is that someone else may be more likely to eventually become Senate president.

RI GOP’S SHADOW POWER: With just 14 of 113 seats in the General Assembly, and no presence in state general or federal offices, Rhode Island Republicans find themselves in a familiar place. Still, despite generally being on the outside looking in, Rhody Republicans have made a real impact in other ways. As Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) recently noted, former House Minority Leader Blake Filippi deserves credit for how the House no longer suspends the rules at the end of session, a decided improvement in the culture of the chamber. And as this column has noted before, the elimination of the state car tax – a move set in motion during Nick Mattiello’s time as House speaker – stemmed in part from a close challenge to Mattiello by Steve Frias, now the RI GOP National Committeeman, in 2016.

WOONSOCKET: I first heard of chatter back in April that former Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, a former state representative, planned to try to return to the House. LBH hasn’t returned my inquiries, but the latest talk is that she plans to challenge Rep. Jon Brien, the conservative Democrat-turned-independent. When I asked pollster Joe Fleming about a poll done for LBH, he said he doesn’t comment on work for clients (other than WPRI, of course). WPRI’s Eli Sherman, who broke the story of a questionable land deal involving Baldelli-Hunt, has more. Brien, the incoming president of the Woonsocket Rotary, tells me he’s proud of his record since returning to the House, and that he will prove to his constituents that he deserves to return to the chamber.

MEDIA: Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of WJAR-TV, Channel 10, is under fire for an instance in which dozens of local anchors read from what critics call a deceptive script about President Biden. In a rare response by the local broadcaster, Channel 10 tweeted out Sinclair’s response to the criticism.

CITY HAUL: Former Providence City Council President David Salvatore is succeeding another former councilor, Cliff Wood, as executive director of the Providence Foundation. Via release: “Joining the Providence Foundation during this critical time in our city’s history is a thrilling opportunity that both my family and I are excited for. I am eager to work with the Foundation’s Board of Directors on leading initiatives that will inspire the kind of growth, improvements, and possibilities that Downtown Providence, our residents, and the nonprofit and business communities deserve. I look forward to getting started.”

KICKER: Summertime and the living is…pugnacious? Narragansett police responded to a large fight near the Block Island Ferry last weekend, with two people being transported to area hospitals. And out on Cape Cod, police in the town of Dennis are clamping down ahead of the Fourth of July. Via news release: “Over the past three years, particularly at Mayflower Beach, police have seen a dramatic increase in unsafe and dangerous conduct, fighting, assaults, vandalism, binge drinking, drug use, loud music, and other concerning behavior.” No word yet on whether the rowdyism will extend to Tanglewood and Bonnet Shores.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.