In Your Neighborhood

A shift in the tectonic plates of the status quo

An interview with Sam Bell, a progressive Democrat, who won his primary and is unopposed in the general election for State Senator for District Five, who is passionate about health care, data and taxes

Photo by Richard Asinof

Sam Bell, the next State Senator representing the Fifth District in Providence.

Image courtesy of Sen. Josh Miller's Facebook page

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, on the morning of the Publick Occurrences event discussing the partisan political divide, The Providence Journal chose to publish this editorial cartoon, the morning after President Trump mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of an alleged sexual assault when they were teenagers, on the day that The Providence Journal was hosting a conversation about the partisan political divide, "Can't we all just get along?"

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/1/18
The status quo appears to be shifting in Rhode Island politics, bringing with it a new breed of elected official, focused on more progressive policies.

When will the new metrics under accountable entities for managed Medicaid be implemented as part of determining costs? How many Rhode Islanders with Medicaid coverage have been terminated in the last few months? How many of those terminated have been provided a continuum of care through the state’s health insurance exchange? Who are the financial sponsors of the TV political opinion talk shows? Should hosts wear their sponsors’ logos stitched onto their jackets, like NASCAR drivers, in the interest of transparency? When will health equity zones and neighborhood health stations become part of the political currency in Rhode Island?
As questions about the truthfulness of Supreme Court judge candidate Brett Kavanaugh continue to roil the political landscape, the larger question is how the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about the alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh when they were teenagers will further awaken women as a political force in the 2018 elections. Domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse never seem to make it into the questions in the political debates staged by media outlets in Rhode Island. Is that because there are so few women asking the questions of candidates?

PROVIDENCE – Watch out, Rhode Island. The apparent bias in the way the news media cover partisan politics may soon get exposed, big time.

The upcoming Publick Occurrences forum on Wednesday evening, Oct. 3, at Rhode Island College, sponsored by The Providence Journal, is slated to be an attempt to explore the polarization of American political life.

But, as Marta Martinez tweeted at Alan Rosenberg, the executive editor of The Journal, in response to the make-up of the seven-person panel discussing the partisan divide: “All these White people telling us: ‘Can’t we all just get along.’”

In turn, Erika Niedowski tweeted: “No excuse for holding a panel with seven white people talking about political polarization and posing that ridiculous question. That is part of the problem.”

Matt McDermott chimed in: “Yikes. This is really bad – and would hope someone involved would speak up.”

[The phrase, “Can’t we all just get along?” was uttered 26 years ago, by Rodney King in April of 1992, appealing for calm in the aftermath of riots that had broken out in Los Angeles, following the acquittal of white police officers who had been charged with brutality during an arrest of King, a black man, which had been captured on video by a bystander, showing King being viciously beaten by police.]

Rosenberg, in a self-serving story hyping the event, wrote: “I’ll leave it to historians to decide whether our divide is worse than in the late 18th century, when President John Adams signed a law criminalizing dissenting opinions, or the mid-19th, when an inability to compromise led to brother shooting brother during the Civil War.” Really? The inability to compromise?

Could The Providence Journal please recruit an American historian to teach a class on the Civil War as part of its one-day university program, in order to help school Rosenberg in a better understanding about the conflicts over slavery in the U.S.?

Rosenberg continued: “Or the 1960s, with their fierce conflicts over the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, and their political assassinations.” Does Rosenberg’s misrepresentation of American history know any bounds?

[Editor's Note: At the last moment, on the day of the event, a few hours before the start, Rosenberg anounced that an additional panelist, Jason Meriweather, a vice president at RIC, and an African-American, was invited to join the panel, apparently in response to the withering criticism Rosenberg received about the make-up of the panel.

Further troubling was the editorial cartoon The Journal published the morning of the event, "Kavanaugh Smear Campaign, Dr. Franken-Feinstein's Monster," which State Sen. Josh Miller criticized, saying; "Of all the days for The ProJo to print this ridiculous cartoon, on their editorial page. Gasoline on a national fire. Shameful embarassing pathetic." See second image above.]

For the record, ConvergenceRI is still waiting [but not holding his breath] for a response from Rosenberg to a series of questions posed to him about why The Providence Journal failed to cover the 2018 Health Equity Summit at the Providence Convention Center, which drew some 750 participants, but gave front-page coverage to an event happening a few dozen yards away, with a reported 500 participants.

The questions included: What prevented The Providence Journal reporter and photographer from crossing the artificial boundary between the two events? [It did not stop some of the participants, who were speakers at both conferences.] Was it a lack of curiosity? Was it the constraint of the assignment? Given the recent layoffs, were there not enough reporters on hand to cover both stories? Not enough freelancers? Was it because the RISE conference had numerous large corporate sponsors, such as Shop & Stop, Care New England, Lifespan, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Amica, Bank Rhode Island, Bank Newport, Bank America, and Cox, among others? Was it an existential choice, choosing corporations over communities, the business of health care over healthy communities?

Was it an endorsement of the status quo, as Robert Frost once posed in his poem, “Mending Wall,” about his neighbor, whom he described as moving “in darkness, as it seems to me, not of woods only and the shade of trees,” an enduring belief in the idea that “good fences make good neighbors?”

Translated, can you imagine a news outlet reporting on a fire consuming a duplex apartment, but choosing only to cover one side of the residences caught up in the blaze?

Competing narratives
Some believe that at the root of the partisan divide in Rhode Island, there is often a distinct “conservative” tilt to the coverage of political opinion in the state, one that disparages more liberal, progressive views.

Take, for example, what Tom Ward, publisher of The Valley Breeze, wrote in a recent column: “Progressives made some progress in the General Assembly last week, but not as much as hoped. Aaron Regunberg, candidate for lieutenant governor, came up just short of his far more experienced opponent, incumbent Dan McKee. Still it was close. Progressives remain on the rise, a warning to all small business owners in the state. There will be more poorly crafted policy disguised with good intentions in the years ahead, and foot soldiers of the busybody left will be going through small business owners’ records as referees of “fairness.” It’s not like they have ever been entrepreneurial or run a business or anything. They just want to tinker with the work of others while raising taxes to pay for their no-risk government paychecks.” Busybody left?

Sam Bell, the newly elected “progressive” state senator from District Five in Providence, who won the Democratic primary and is unopposed in the general election, sees the political world much differently than Ward.

Bell talked about what he perceived as the problem in covering partisan politics in Rhode Island. “I think it’s not just that we have a lack of media coverage, but that all the opinion journalism in Rhode Island that covers state politics is conservative,” he said.

There is no one, Bell continued, “who works at a mainstream news outlet whose job it is to be a liberal voice, but there are a lot of conservative voices. Channel 12, for instance, has the Dan Yorke Show, which is an exclusive conservative voice show; there is no balancing liberal show.”

Further, Bell said: “The ProJo has an all-conservative op-ed page, and there is no effort to provide a liberal voice,” adding that he had once been what he called a token liberal voice, writing a monthly column for The Journal, explaining: “I was fired, because I refused to back down from saying that [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions had lied to Congress about his ties to Russia.”

And, Bell said: “Channel 10 was recently purchased by Sinclair Media and has been aggressively adding conservative advocacy journalism.”

Bell’s critique on the conservative bias of political opinion journalism continued. “WPRO has been consistently focused on conservative opinion makers. NPR is scrupulously neutral and often very critical of the progressive movement – while reaching an overwhelmingly liberal audience.”

The only thing coming close [to serving] a liberal, progressive audience is Uprise RI, Bell said. “But, in the mainstream media, there is no professional, paid liberal opinion journalism, which makes it very difficult to get our message out.”

Still, despite the lack of “fair and balanced” coverage, the voters appear to paying attention, and responding.

Encounters with voters
One of the reasons why ConvergenceRI sought out an interview with Bell, who is a geologist and a computer data analyst by trade, was a conversation that had occurred in early July at Olga’s, the hub of innovation in the newly named “Innovation District,” where Bell had talked about a recurring issue he had encountered when talking with voters in his district: a large number of constituents had been thrown off Medicaid, many of whom were Spanish speaking.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about what you encountered with voters?
I think there are really two issues here. And, it is difficult to get good information about this, because it has not been reported on as well as it should have been.

Channel 12 did a story about the case load estimating conference, where state officials discussed how they were changing the eligibility determination procedures, with the goal of removing 20,000 people from the Medicaid roles that they thought were ineligible, which I thought was an extremely aggressive goal, because that process may likely incorporate some people who were actually eligible.

The [state Medicaid office] gave people a 10-day window to respond; they sent out these letters, as reported by Channel 12, that said if you didn’t respond in 10 days, then you’re off Medicaid.

A lot of people didn’t know that they were terminated, and the really cruel part is that a lot of people were removed from Medicaid without a continuum of coverage.

If you’re kicked off, and you don’t know you’re kicked off, and you have already incurred the medical bill, of if you’re in treatment during the process, and you are terminated, then suddenly you can be slapped with these massive bills.

I heard a lot of stories about this occurring on the campaign trail. In a couple of conversations, people told me: I don’t know if I am covered, so I don’t want to seek medical care.

A lot of [my constituents] said they were confused; they thought they had insurance, then somebody tells them they don’t, and they didn’t know that they needed to go sign up for coverage at the state exchange.

I think the really inhumane part of this process is not making sure that everyone terminated from Medicaid is smoothly transitioned to the Obamacare exchange [HealthSourceRI].

We also need to look into this really aggressive termination process and see whether it is really necessary.

What I am concerned about is whether, in some cases, people’s due-process rights may have been violated. Because to try and terminate 20,000 people so rapidly, especially in an area of state government that is already extremely overburdened with addressing the UHIP fallout, is very concerning.

Another part of the process that I am unclear about is exactly how much money is supposedly being saved. The projections, according to one story I read, was that [the removal of 20,000 people from the Medicaid roles] was only going to save $1 million a month, or $12 million a year.

I also recently saw it reported that Rhode Island had had an increase in the number of uninsured; it was disturbing to see that trend turning around. I am wondering whether the Medicaid terminations could have something to do with the change for the worse in the uninsured rates.

ConvergenceRI: As a state senator, will be able to ask the questions to get the data you want?
I will be able to ask the questions. I do not think it would be responsible for me to promise that the data will be delivered. I will try.

I think a lot of legislators don’t pay that much attention to the core parts of their constituencies. And so, often Medicaid can be an invisible issue.

But [the terminations underway] can be heart-breaking to so many people. Medicaid is maybe the most important thing that state government does; it’s a huge part of the state budget, and it’s absolutely essential that we get this right.

ConvergenceRI: What are some of the other key issues in regard to health care that you see as being important policy discussions next year?
I also want to talk a bit about my concern with the data obsession with health care. In my personal work, I work in data science, I’m a geologist; that’s what my professional background is in.

But, data are only as good as the underlying accuracy of the data. And, when you deal with complicated health data, and you try to tie performance metrics to health data, it can be very damaging.

I think that the way we look at health policy in Rhode Island is to try and focus too much on data obsession and not enough on dealing with the underlying health issues.

Specifically, there has been a big push toward these accountable entities that are part of philosophical approach toward metrics-based health care. I think you can make metrics work when the metrics are designed around actual population health outcomes.

Population health management works well when you actually go out and improve the health of the population.

I think we really need to think through and get beyond this totemic obsession with data, and instead, get more interested in actually addressing the kinds of things that the data really suggest to improve health outcomes.

ConvergenceRI: Beyond the issues with health care and Medicaid terminations, what were the issues that resonated most with the constituents in your district?
My criticism of tax cuts for the rich – that was at the top of my platform, it was the issue that I talked about most.

Also my support for a woman’s right to choose, my endorsement form Planned Parenthood. A lot of people voted for me, I think, because I was proud to be pro-choice, and that was very important for me winning the primary.

I also think we need to talk about the leadership structure of the Democratic Party. I was also elected to represent Mount Pleasant on the State Democratic Committee.

Uncovered, unreported, unrecognized – except by the voters
The ConvergenceRI interview conducted with Sam Bell was the first in-depth interview with the next State Senator from the Fifth District, as best as can be determined. Why is that?

Next January, when the 2019 R.I. General Assembly convenes, the likelihood is that Bell could be joined by Dr. Michael Fine, who is running as an independent candidate in District 21, where the incumbent resigned, creating a progressive powerhouse when it comes to advocating for community-based health policies in Rhode Island.

The election of Bell and Fine would send a signal that voters want to shake up the status quo. It also raises the question whether the news media will respond to the shift in the marketplace and become more inclusive when it comes to political opinion journalism.


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