Delivery of Care

Listening to our authentic voices

An in-depth interview with R.I. EOHHS Secretary Womazetta Jones

Photo by Richard Asinof

R.I EOHHS Secretary Womazetta Jones

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/26/21
A candid interview with R.I. EOHHS Secretary Womazetta Jones, talking about her continuing mission to engage with Rhode Islanders and have uncomfortable conversations about racial equity.
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CRANSTON – Two years ago, when Secretary Womazetta Jones first arrived in Rhode Island to assume the helm at the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Rhode Island Foundation held an introductory gathering in her honor, at which she made her intentions clear: it was time for Rhode Island to have some uncomfortable conversations around racial equity. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “It is time to have some uncomfortable conversations,” and “A change is going to come.”]

Since that time, Secretary Jones has often found herself in the proverbial hot seat, most recently serving as interim director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals, at the direction of Gov. Dan McKee, after the previous director resigned, given the responsibility for righting the keel after a scandal arose around the delivery of patient care at Eleanor Slater Hospital and Medicaid billing. In turn, Secretary Jones has emerged as one of the most trusted lieutenants under Gov. Dan McKee.

On Thursday, July 1, the morning after Gov. McKee and Secretary Jones had held a news conference to share the findings of a consultant’s report on Eleanor Slater Hospital, ConvergenceRI had the opportunity to sit down for an in-person, one-on-one, wide-ranging interview, at her office at the agency headquarters in Cranston.

The first question ConvergenceRI asked had to do with Secretary Jones’ estimation of her progress in having uncomfortable conversations around racial equity in Rhode Island. Jones welcomed the query.

“Well, I will tell you, I didn’t back down,” she began. “You know, I want to say to you, it is going well, but nowhere near as well as it needs to be.”

Secretary Jones cited, as an example, the recognition that there needed to be an Equity Council established, as the state was making its way through COVID, on the heels of George Floyd’s murder.

“Those two events, the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, again just really highlighted the fact that systemic, historic racism is the root cause, that causality [which was] part of what we saw with both of these situations,” she said.

When you look at COVID, Secretary Jones continued, “Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, and it is because of systemic, historic racism. The pandemic was really a subset of that bigger topic of systemic, historic racism.”

What the creation of the Equity Council afforded, Secretary Jones explained, “was, first of all, saying that we needed to bring grassroots leaders from all of our communities of color together to ensure that the administration knew what was needed to really deal with this virus, recognizing that our communities of color were not getting what they needed.”

The creation of the Equity Council was “a space and a forum where I have really been able to push that piece of having uncomfortable conversations.”

In addition, Secretary Jones said, that within all the departments operating under the umbrella of R.I. EOHHS, she asked that each department present to her a race equity plan. “We need to ensure that everyone has choice, that we are using a racial equity lens, and that we are engaging communities,” she said. “The only way you are going to get there is to have these plans.”

Another initiative Secretary Jones referenced in regard to having uncomfortable conversations around racial equity involved data collection by the Medicaid office.

“I have made it clear: I don’t accept imputed [assumed] data,” Secretary Jones said. “That is not acceptable; guess what, that is actually structural racism. You are making assumptions instead of asking.”

There was pushback, according to Secretary Jones, by some who said that people wouldn’t share such data. Her response: “People will self-identify if they trust the entity they are working with. And they will trust, based on what you put out there, about how much do you care about people of color.”

When it comes to having these uncomfortable conversations, Secretary Jones said she is continuing to push forward. “I have been pushing that piece of ‘uncomfortable’ conversations about having true metrics, milestones and outcomes that have race-based driven data. We have to do this. So, I have [been on] a journey, through COVID, through Zoom calls, to really get this out there. Everybody deserves it. Everyone deserves to be treated and afforded the same level of access care and attention.”

Sharing information
Secretary Jones was particularly interested in hearing about some of the reporting that ConvergenceRI had been pursuing, related to problems with data collection around health care cost trends, around potential snafus with Medicaid accountable entities, and around the potential to develop new metrics around recovery, focused on more than the perverse measurements of opioid deaths and overdoses.

In response to questions, ConvergenceRI shared a number of recent stories with Yvette Mendez, Secretary Jones’ chief of staff. Stay tuned.

The learning curve
ConvergenceRI followed up with a question about the learning curve for Secretary Jones, asking: What have you learned about yourself? And what have you learned about the challenges inherent in the job moving forward?

Secretary Jones framed her answers around some basic facts: “I came from another state, as a woman of color, all day long. While I was part of the McKee administration since day one, with the Raimondo administration, I came in at a point where relationships and practices had been created and structures had been formed.”

Further, Secretary Jones stressed that she wanted to make it very clear that she appreciated Commerce Secretary Raimondo’s nomination of her for the job. “As a human being, and as a person who is extremely kind, [she was] professional and supportive of me,” Secretary Jones said.

What happened, Secretary Jones continued, with the administration and with directors of agencies, was not a new story. There was a need to recognize where the vested authority rests with the statute, and what the actual authority of the Secretary of R.I. EOHHS really is.

Here is Secretary Jones’ extended answer:

JONES: What I have learned about myself through this process is, I would say, since my arrival here in Rhode Island, is that I’m stronger and more resilient than I thought I was – and I thought I was a pretty strong and resilient person.

To begin with, I found that I am even stronger because I was not willing to allow others to have me walk away from important work. I was not willing to let others get me to walk away because I was not invited into rooms, or if I was invited into rooms, my voice was not heard.

It goes back to those uncomfortable conversations: I’m going to be a straight shooter; I’m going to be honest; I’m going to be direct; I’m going to be transparent.

And, I’m going to keep at it until I am really in the room and my voice is heard. What I have also learned about myself is that at times I’ve been told that using my voice can lead to being targeted or scapegoated or held accountable for things that you didn't even know about.

My voice is important and it matters and I’m going to speak up, taking the high road and being professional and being a class act.

Those are some of the things I have learned about myself during this journey. And, I also need to become even more fearless – even it it leads to questions that I was asked yesterday at the news conference [regarding the Eleanor Slater Hospital report].

Changing the statute?
Secretary Jones then spoke about the potential need to change the statute around accountability and authority regarding the responsibilities of the R.I. EOHHS’s Secretary position.

Unlike in Massachusetts, Secretary Jones explained, where they have a fully functional Secretariat model, Rhode Island does not have a similar statute. The directors of departments are nominated by the Governor and go through advise and consent to be confirmed in those roles.

“It is very clear the way that the statute is written for the Secretariat, in terms of R.I. EOHHS, it is very clear what it does not say the authorities are,” she said.

“I will tell you that after eight weeks of deployment to R.I. BHDDH, and being in the director’s seat each day, I learned more in those eight weeks about BHDDH than I knew all of the time before that.”

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