Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo Faces Nursing Home Case Fallout

Jun 8, 2018

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo recently announced her reelection campaign with a splashy tv ad. The spot is airing as the governor faces criticism after a state lawyer dropped the ball on a big case involving Medicaid payments. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses this development and its potential impact on the governor’s campaign. 

The chattering classes and the media were focused last week on a potential cost to taxpayers of $24 million because a state lawyer failed to file an appeal in a nursing home payment case. Just about everyone involved in this fiasco looked bad. The lawyer, Gregory Hazian, who also neglected to abide by rules to keep his legal license valid, abruptly resigned.

Raimondo initially suggested that Hazian be prosecuted criminally, then proposed a series of personnel changes designed to keep such mishaps from occurring in the future.

Because we’re in campaign season, opponents from the left and right jumped all over her. Republicans also had harsh words for Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello. GOP state chairman Brandon Bell even quoted the Gospel According to Luke in accusing the speaker of a cover-up.

And Democrat Matt Brown, who is challenging Raimondo in a primary, sensed a weakness and now seeks to reverse Raimondo’s signature accomplishment, the cuts in state pension benefits she engineered as state treasurer.

Raimondo is both unfortunate and lucky. It is her bad fortune that this legal fiasco happened as the campaign silliness is underway. And as the General Assembly is slated to vote on the state budget for the fiscal year than begins next month.  Yet, she’s  fortunate that this one didn’t hit the front page and the air waves in September or October.

There’ no way a governor can keep track of  thousands of state employees. But more attention should have been paid to a high-profile case where this much money is involved. In other cases, including the pension overhaul and clawing back money from the 38 Studios bankruptcy, the state hired outside law firms with more expertise than state lawyers to represent taxpayers. That could have been done in this case.

The problem for Raimondo is that this dust up blemishes her reputation for competency. It comes on the heels of the never-ending UHIP issue and the suspicion in some quarters that her administration is less than transparent on tax incentive deals for well-heeled corporations.

Sometimes it seems as if Raimondo is in her second term as governor, not her first. That’s because she carved such a large profile as treasurer with the pension overhaul. Shortly after that measure won Assembly approval, she started running for governor.

Her poll numbers are not very good for a governor with an improving economy. Three recent polls show her with tepid job approval numbers and in a virtual tie with the Republican she narrowly defeated in 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Fung might well be ahead were it not for independent candidacy of longtime Republican State Rep Joe Trillo of Warwick.

Raimondo has also drawn –fairly or not—a reputation for hubris. Even leaders of her party say the Rhodes Scholar governor has a need to show everyone that she is the smartest person any room. Others close to her administration say can be difficult to work with and is tough on underlings. In this case, she is trying to leaven all that by wisely cancelling a $1,000 a person Manhattan fund-raiser and rolling out the new personnel rules.

Raimondo campaign spokesman David Ortiz says that the governor is tough on aides because she has high expectations. And he says she has addressed this latest issue more quickly than other challenges she has had, including UHIP.

Among the personnel changes: All lawyers who represent the state will have to provide annual documentation that they are in good standing with state courts. The state’s Office of Internal Audit will conduct random checks of state workers to ensure they have certifications required for their jobs. And all new state employees will be required to acknowledge their responsibility to maintain all licensure certifications.

That said, this would have been a one or two-day news story had it happened a year ago. The issue can still be salvaged. The governor could work with Mattiello to negotiate a settlement with the nursing homes. There is some extra money at the Statehouse this session. Mattiello says he’s open to talks on the matter.

A larger issue is that neither Raimondo and her opponents, nor the Assembly, have taken a wide-angle view of health care. Her response to bloating Medicaid costs has been to trim payments to providers. Then the providers hire lobbyists and convince the Assembly to put the money back.

It’s past time for politicians to come with serious, innovative ways to change how to deliver health care for those without employer-paid insurance.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org