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McKee says Raimondo administration told a ‘fairytale’ about Eleanor Slater budget

Governor proposes $40 million budget amendment, citing “misinformation” and unrealistic assumptions about the state-run hospital of last resort

Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee enters the State Room on Tuesday for a news conference.
Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee enters the State Room on Tuesday for a news conference.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday said he is requesting a budget amendment of nearly $40 million because former Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration provided him with inaccurate information and unrealistic assumptions about the state’s Eleanor Slater Hospital.

“It was a fairytale,” he said.

McKee took office in March after Raimondo became US Secretary of Commerce, and he submitted his first state budget proposal just four days after his inauguration.

“When we went through the budget time frame, there were assumptions that were given to us that were not real,” McKee said during a regular State House news conference Tuesday. “Those assumptions really shortchanged the budget a significant amount of dollars.”

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For example, he said the budget proposal counted on saving money from closing the Regan building by July 1 at the Cranston campus of the Eleanor Slater Hospital. But, he said, “That was not going to happen. It wasn’t going to happen then. It wasn’t going to happen when I said let’s put a pause and take a re-look.”

In April, McKee put a hold on plans developed during Raimondo’s administration to dramatically reshape Eleanor Slater Hospital. But he said that recently asked if the budget would still be $40 million short even if he ended the “pause” in those changes, and the answer was “yes.”

So, he said, he sought the budget amendment and is no longer counting on certain revenue and savings.

“I want to make it very clear,” McKee said, “I would never put together a budget that would have a $40 million hole in it, knowingly.”

Rather, he said, “That situation was created because there was misinformation at the time, whether knowingly or unknowingly.”

McKee said conversations are “ongoing” with those who provided the inaccurate information. “We are certainly making sure we get the information correct so that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

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And meanwhile, McKee said, his administration is working to have a plan for Eleanor Slater before the end of the legislative session, which is expected to last through the end of June. “What I expect is we will have a plan, if it is approved by the General Assembly, that will improve matters significantly and it will also be very transparent,” he said.

McKee said his message to family members of Eleanor Slater patients is: “The service level is not going to change until there is a plan. We will certainly communicate that to all families and anybody that is impacted, including staff, including administration.”

McKee said changes to Eleanor Slater won’t be cheap.

“This thing has not been taken care of for many, many years, so this is not going to be an inexpensive strategy,” he said, noting the budget proposal calls for building a new skilled nursing facility at the hospital’s Zambarano unit in Burrillville at a cost of $65 million.

The state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals runs Eleanor Slater Hospital, which cares for people with complex medical and psychiatric needs at campuses in Burrillville and Cranston. The financially troubled hospital has been the subject of speculation and controversy. Legislators in the Burrillville area say the state is secretly trying to close the facility there, known as the Zambarano unit.

In May, McKee nominated Richard Charest, former CEO of the Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket, as the new BHDDH director. Former director Kathryn Power retired in April, citing family health problems.

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The Globe previously reported that Janet L. Coit, who has led the state Department of Environmental Management under three governors, will be joining the US Commerce Department now headed by Raimondo.

On Tuesday, McKee said that Coit’s last day on the job will be June 18, and that Terrence Gray, the deputy director for environmental protection, will become the department’s acting director.

“Janet has connected countless Rhode Islanders and visitors to the natural wonders that our state has to offer, all the while improving customer services, sustainability, and morale within RIDEM,” McKee said in a statement. “We are grateful for her public service and wish her all the best in her next endeavor.”

Gray has worked for DEM for 34 years, and McKee said, “I am confident that Terry will be able to lead the department as we continue to tackle the climate crisis, address environmental justice issues and preserve our natural resources.”

During Tuesday’s news conference, McKee was asked about legislation that would that would provide health insurance to all children regardless of immigration status under the RIte Track program.

“I’ve got to balance everything on the budgetary side,” McKee said. “But in principle, I’m on board with it.”

Also, McKee said he is not on board with legislation that would increase the top income tax rate from 5.99 percent to 8.99 percent on Rhode Island residents with incomes of more than $475,000 a year. “I don’t favor additional taxes this year, whether a wealth tax or whether Coca-Cola,” he said, referring to a proposed tax on sugary drinks.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.