Political rivals heaped criticism Monday on Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo over how the state missed a timely appeal in a court case involving nursing homes -- a situtation that could cost the state $24 million -- while an administration official blamed the situation on a lawyer who has stepped down from his job with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
HHS Secretary Eric Beane faced reporters during an afternoon news conference Monday. He said the agency's upper leadership was not aware of the looming deadline until the same date, May 23, that an appeal was due in Superior Court.
"It’s not typical and it’s not acceptable," Beane said. "In a large organization like this you rely on your senor team to keep you apprised of significant developments in matters of public importance. And I would have expected to know about the status of a significant case like this."
Beane faulted an HHS lawyer, Gregory Hazian, and his supervisor, Deb George, for not sharing information about the approaching deadline. Hazian resigned Monday from his state job, and George has been placed on leave. Beane said heh was not aware that the nursing home case was still pending until learning about the situation on May 23.
“From the legal documents you know that our attoney of record failed to advise leadership of this case and took action to conceal his knowledge of the court’s decisionm," Beane said. "This is inexcusable. We expect our employees to conduct themselves professionally and that did not happen in this case.”
Beane said he did not speak out about the situation ahead of news reports Sunday because the state was focused on making a delinquent appeal Friday in the nursing home case.
Raimondo told reporters that the situation involving Hazian has been referred to the attorney general's office for possible investigation. The governor said the inquiry may look at how Nazian was practicing as a lawyer after not fulfilling certain requirements. She spoke during a hastily called 6 pm news conference at the Statehouse, after staying out of the media eye for most of the day.
Meanwhile, rival gubernatorial candidates blamed Raimondo for the situation, and most called for Beane to resign -- a move he rejected.
"Raimondo’s administration is once again costing Rhode Islanders millions to fix problems she and her administration have caused through their mismanagement," Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, said in a statement. "Rhode Islanders don't want this administration and its disasters to keep going - they want it all to go away!"
Matt Brown accused fellow Democrat Raimondo of being too focused on fundraising and not enough on managing the state: "Raimondo has a pattern of expressing 'disappointment,' blaming others and saying that she will hold someone accountable for her administration’s repeated failures. She never accepts responsibility - or apologizes to Rhode Islanders."
Republican Patricia Morgan called for an independent probe. “The governor and her staff are responsible for the effective and efficient delivery of real life saving services, and instead of focusing on what’s important, the governor is focused on traveling the country, building her profile, and paying for sound bites and clips," Morgan said. "A leader faces problems head on and solves them, the governor repeatedly fails the most basic test of leadership.”
In a statement, independent candidate for governor Joe Trillo said, “Rather than take responsibility, the Raimondo is doing what it does best, passing the buck, placing the blame on someone else, a state lawyer, for missing the deadline. This doesn’t fly with me, nor anyone else, who understands how state government and the legal system works. The fact of the matter is Governor Gina Raimondo herself, as well as her Health & Human Services Secretary Eric Beane, under her direct leadership are charged with overseeing such matters so critical to our state’s financial resources. Now, a missed filing deadline in a nursing home lawsuit will most likely cost the state millions of Medicaid dollars and this is completely unacceptable."
The Executive Office of Health and Human Services is a secretariat made up of four state deparments, Health; Human Services; Children, Youth and Families; and Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. Beane took on the leadership of EOHHS after Elizabeth Roberts stepped down in early 2017, due to problems with the state's IT system for administering human service benefits, UHIP.
Beane said his office will now make sure there are two attorneys of record in every case.
"We will ensure that all the attorneys who provide legal support to EOHHS agencies are regularly attesting that they’re members in good standing of the Rhode Island bar," he said. "And we will ask them to refresh the list of all of the significant pending litigation matter, so that we are fully aware of any other issues like this that are looming."
Earlier, Raimondo's office produced a statement about the state potentially being on the hook for an unexpected $24 million in retroactive Medicaid payments to nursing homes.
“I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by this development," Raimondo said. "It is unacceptable. I will make sure that OHHS takes every step possible to hold the people who put us in this position accountable.”
Beane said even if the state loses its delinquent appeal in court that will mean more money will be channelled to nursing homes.
"We believe we have a case on the merits and interpret the law today just as we did in 2016," Ashley Gingerella O'Shea, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said in an email. "Two previous administrative hearings ruled for the State, finding Medicaid’s reimbursement rates are in line with the statute and the General Assembly’s intent in passing the legislation."
Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said the House version of the state budget is still a work in progress and that no date has been set yet for consideration. (Before the news broke about the missed deadline, the spending plan was expected to emerge in the House Finance Committee Thursday.) "Speaker Mattiello is aware of the problem and he and the fiscal staff are working on options to address it," Berman said.
Hazian was originally hired by the state as a cook's helper in 1979 at the agency now known as Behavior Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. By 1987, he left a position as a cleaner to continue his education. He worked as a state law clerk for part of 1990 and 1991.
According to the state Department of Administration, Hazian was rehired by the state for a legal counsel job in 2007 with the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the spending and hiring arm of the legislature, and became senior legal counsel at HHS in 2010.
State campaign finance records show that Hazian has donated a total of $1,700 to various elected officials since 2002, including Mattiello.
This story has been updated.