Mind and Body

How the good guys and gals won

Recovery advocates scored an impressive victory, forcing BHDDH to restore more than $2 million in cuts, forcing Gov. McKee to retreat

Phto by Richard Asinof

Rally4Recovery participants on Sept. 18 included, from left: Rebecca Boss, former director of R.I. BHDDH, Linda Hurley, president and CEO of CODAC, and State Sen. Josh Miller

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/20/21
Recovery community advocates won a tremendous victory, having more than $2 million in funding cuts to programs restored, but the news media in Rhode Island failed to cover the story.
Why did the notice about the cuts being rescinded by R.I BHDDH fail to accurately portray the fact that the R.I. Attorney General had reached out and then agreed to provide $1 million to naloxone funding? Given the role that McKinsey & Company played in helping the Sacklers “turbocharge” the opioid epidemic, is the state still willing to consider them as a bidder for consulting contracts? Given the number of reporters who have had their own brushes with substance use disorders for themselves and their families, why wasn’t the story covered better?
One solution to the dire need of nurses and health care workers throughout the Rhode Island health care delivery system would be investments in onsite daycare facilities for workers, established by hospitals and other health care facilities to provide safe, secure places for children of workers to go to during the work shifts. There are plenty of opportunities to partner with to set up such facilities, and it would no doubt prove to be a competitive edge for those health care facilities in attracting and maintaining a highly qualified workforce in the future.
Another key factor is for the state – and, in particular, the R.I. Medicaid office and other insurers, to raise the rates that are being paid to workers in the behavioral health and mental health fields.

PROVIDENCE – Last week, recovery advocates defeated an entrenched bureaucratic elite in Rhode Island, preserving life-saving programs that had been destined for the bin.

At a time when the state is awash in money – with more than $1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to invest as well as increased tax revenues, Gov. Dan McKee and his administration had attempted to blame more than $2 million in cuts in recovery programs on the sunset of federal funding – arguing that it provided a lesson in state budgeting about the hazards of becoming too dependent on such funding streams.

But a small band of recovery advocates, many that had been working on the front lines for the last six years to save lives and prevent drug overdoses, turned the tables.

They staged an intervention, demanding level funding for the programs through the current funding year, at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Governor’s Task on Overdose Prevention and Intervention.

The unprecedented action took place as a direct result of the story published on Sept. 6 by ConvergenceRI, detailing the cuts. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “BHDDH cuts more than $2 million in funding for recovery programs.”]

“The story that ConvergenceRI published on Sept. 6 took a dark truth and pulled it into the light,” said Jonathan Goyer, recovery expert and a leader of the revolt. “It resulted in the largest mobilization of the recovery community that I have ever seen in the Ocean State.”

And, when Richard Charest, the director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals, couldn’t give members of the Task Force a straight, yes or no answer, at the Sept. 8 Task Force meeting, they had walked out. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Hard of hearing? BHDDH’s Charest and Gov. McKee seem to be tone deaf.”]

Steve Ahlquist from Uprise RI and ConvergenceRI were the only news media covering what occurred. Why was that?

Rally on
On Wednesday, Sept. 15, in an email, the co-chairs of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention announced that the proposed cuts of more than $2 million to recovery and medication-assisted treatment programs in Rhode Island had been rescinded and instead, all of the programs would be level-funded through FY 2022.

In addition, the co-chairs, Richard Charest, director of R.I. BHDDH, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, promised to be more transparent about funding decisions in the future.

Translated, in less than two weeks, recovery advocates had won a remarkable, improbable victory. That good news story, however, has been ignored and neglected, for the most part, by Rhode Island’s news media, because it apparently did not fit into the dominant news narrative.

Ask yourself: When was the last time a group of citizen activists succeeded in forcing a sitting Governor to rescind more than $2 million in cuts and secure level-funding for the next year?

It has never happened before, in ConvergenceRI’s memory. With an election year looming, that would seem to be big political news. But, for two weeks running, two of Rhode Island’s top political pundits, WPRI’s Ted Nesi and The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis, have ignored the story in their weekly columns. Why?

[Editor’s Note: On Friday, Sept. 17, G. Wayne Miller of The Providence Journal rewrote the contents of the letter from Carol Stone at the R.I. Department of Health that had been sent out to Task Force members two days earlier on Wednesday, Sept. 15, announcing that the cuts had been rescinded. Is rewriting press releases and emails now considered reporting? Missing from Miller’s story was the role that reporting from ConvergenceRI and Uprise RI had played in detailing the cuts and the walk out.]

Lost in the flood of news?
For sure, apologists could argue that the story may have gotten lost in the flood of distractions in the news so busy covering mayhem and anxiety. There were: the tweets by a music celebrity about swollen balls [most likely the result of Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease] and vaccine hesitancy; a smashing electoral victory by Calif. Gavin Newsom staving off recall; shocking testimony by four gymnasts before the U.S. Senate that fingered the FBI for gross negligence and cover up of their sexual abuse; and the launch of Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s campaign to run for governor in 2022 and his refusal to answer questions at the initial launch event, followed by the decision announced by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza that he would not be running for Governor.

And, there were the endless parade of dog-and-pony staged news events to cover – the Brown-URI football game, the Providence St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the lighting of WaterFire to honor the educational heroes, led by R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and the Governor. Throw in the predictable drumbeat of stories about the worrisome rise in COVID infections in schools in Rhode Island from the Delta variant. [Editor’s note: One radio talk show host declined to interview ConvergenceRI, saying the script for the three-hour slot had already been set, and the major topic was the lawsuit against the mask mandate in schools in Rhode Island.]

Why the good guys won
Here is a brief recap of what had happened:

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, the co-chairs of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention announced in an email that the proposed cuts of more than $2 million to recovery and medication-assisted treatment programs in Rhode Island had been rescinded and instead, all of the programs would be level-funded through FY 2022.

In addition, the co-chairs, Richard Charest, director of R.I. BHDDH, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, promised to be more transparent about funding decisions in the future.

It was a tremendous victory for the recovery community, who had staged an intervention at the Task Force meeting on Sept. 8, challenging the leadership of Richard Charest, the director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals.

News of the cuts had been broken in a story published by ConvergenceRI on Monday, Sept. 6. The story spurred the recovery committee to take action, leading to the walk out at the Task Force meeting.

Translated, the recovery community, aided by comprehensive reporting by ConvergenceRI and Uprise RI, forced a complete reversal in policy by the BHDDH and Gov. McKee’s administration in less than two weeks – despite the failure by the rest of news media to report on the cuts or the walk out, save for one brief story by The Providence Journal.

Here is what the letter, emailed out on Wednesday, Sept. 15, said:

• “The R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals has reallocated dollars from new projects and worked with our state partners, including the Office of Attorney General Peter Neronha, to find the funding necessary to meet the requests of the community members and providers. Pending authorization from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration and the R.I. Department of Administration, BHDDH will continue each of the reduced contracts attached with level funding until Oct. 1, 2022. [This is an estimate of the programs we believe are impacted, based on the expiring federal grants and the letter that BHDDH received from the community.]

• “While we cannot guarantee continued federal funding beyond that date at this time, BHDDH will work with the providers whose funding is being restored to agree on appropriate metrics upon which these contracts will continue to be evaluated, to determine any future funding for these specific programs.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled to read the response from BHDDH that announces level-funding for treatment and recovery support programs, in particular the in-depth transparency around how funding was secured,” wrote Jonathan Goyer, recovery expert, who helped to spearhead the revolt by the recovery community.

“I daydream of a world where we don’t have to go to work everyday and fight to keep what we had yesterday,” Goyer continued. “I’m also hopeful for a future that includes permanent transparency around how SAMHSA block grants, opioid stewardship funds and other treatment/recovery dollars are spent [as we did with the COVID-19 Transparency Portal].”

Goyer also gave credit to the role played by ConvergenceRI and Uprise RI. “But today, I will celebrate with my community in winning this battle [and a big thank you to ConvergenceRI and Uprise RI for being part of that community]. If we stick together in unity and love, we might just win the war!”

The recovery advocacy group, RICARES, also issued a statement following the announcement that the more than $2 million had been rescinded.

“Our community’s sole goal is to be able to continue our work to save the lives of our fellow Rhode Islanders,” said Ian Knowles, program director at RICARES. “Last week’s community expression of commitment, courage, and solidarity confirms the power of a community that stands together.”

Knowles continued: “We urge the Task Force leaders to remember the statement in R.I. EOHHS’s December presentation to the Task Force. ‘Recovery is fragile for anyone, at any time – but fentanyl, COVID anxiety and isolation, discrimination and disparities, as well as institutional mistrust are devastating to those finding their way.’ That statement is as true and applicable today as it was nine months ago.”

Knowles concluded: “Too much Task Force time and energy was unnecessarily diverted from our mutual work toward a common goal. A positive and productive working relationship to continue that work depends on the complete transparency and information sharing that reflects the respect necessary for a real partnership. The response by the Task Force leadership is a promising first step on the long road still ahead of us.”

$1 million from the AG’s office
Although the letter from Co-Chairs Charest and Alexander-Scott gave credit to R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha for helping to come up with some the money needed to sustain the programs threatened with cuts, it lacked specific details.

It turned out that Attorney General Peter Neronha, having read about the cuts in ConvergenceRI and having a representative that attended the Sept. 8 Task Force meeting at which the walk out had occurred, reached out to the McKee administration and offered $1 million to help to resolve the crisis, using money from the lawsuit won against McKinsey & Company, to pay for naloxone. [See link to ConvergenceRI story, “The high cost of consulting firms making policy.”]

Here is the response by Attorney General Neronha’s office to questions from ConvergenceRI:

“We became aware of the need for additional funding for Naloxone through public reports [including the article in ConvergenceRI] and our attendance at the last Task Force meeting. Our Office reached out to the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services to suggest using a portion of the McKinsey settlement funds to cover the dire need of obtaining this life-saving medicine,” Kristy dosReis, spokesperson for the Attorney General, wrote to ConvergenceRI.

“Using the McKinsey funds to directly support an immediate need in our community is one example of how the settlement money our office brings into the state can have a real and significant impact on Rhode Islanders,” dos Reis continued. “We are happy to be part of the solution and are pleased that R.I. EOHHS, R.I. BHDDH and the R.I. Department of Health are working to respond to the community’s concerns.”

The exact amount of $1 million provided by the R.I. Attorney General’s emerged in a Tweet on Friday afternoon, Sept. 17.

ConvergenceRI also asked about the status of the potential appeal by Attorney General Neronha to the decision by a federal bankruptcy court to approve the reorganization of Purdue Pharma, which had been owned by the Sackler family and had been responsible for manufacturing and marketing OxyContin, an addictive prescription painkiller.

“In July, we joined eight other Attorneys General in objecting to Purdue's proposed bankruptcy plan, which includes a lifetime legal shield for the Sacklers,” dosReis said. “We do not believe the plan holds the Sacklers sufficiently accountable for the role they played in Rhode Island’s opioid epidemic. We are currently evaluating our all of our legal options, including whether to file an appeal.”

[Editor’s Note: Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an appeal as well as asking for an emergency stay of the bankruptcy’s judge decision.]

Recovery month
To celebrate Recovery Month in Rhode Island, the recovery community held its annual “Rally4Recovery in Roger Williams Park, drawing hundreds of participants and featured speeches from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, state Senator Josh Miller, and recovery advocate Jonathan Goyer. [Gov. McKee was noticeably absent.]

One important news tidbit, confirmed by four different individuals, was that R.I. BHDDH Director Richard Charest had allegedly told his senior staff last week that he would only be on the job for another nine months, planning to leave by July of 2022.

With the Eleanor Slater Hospital still embroiled in a scandal related to its delivery of care and the way that it bills Medicaid for patients, and with the state facing the prospects of severe financial sanctions, potentially in the millions of dollars, for its failure to live up to its federal court-mandated agreement for services for the developmentally disabled, Charest’s continued leadership at R.I. BHDDH seems precarious. Stay tuned.

One more observation: In an increasingly crowded field of candidates seeking statewide office, surprisingly few have made the connection between the funding of a $5 million consulting contract championed by the McKee administration and the proposed cuts to the recovery programs. However, Aaron Regunberg, the losing candidate for Lt. Governor in 2018, made the connection in a recent op-ed published in The Providence Journal,

Regunberg wrote: "Such misuse of power does more than just undermine faith in our public institutions (which would be destructive enough). When our elected leaders loot public dollars to line the pockets of their campaign donors, it leaves us with fewer resources to help neighbors who truly need support. Case in point: as Gov. McKee was handing out multimillion-dollar giveaways to his financial backers, his administration was proposing millions in cuts to critical overdose prevention programs, at a time when overdoses in Rhode Island are at an all-time high."

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