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At forum on issues R.I. seniors face, gubernatorial candidates weigh in

At the Senior Agenda Coalition forum, candidates were asked about aging and long-term care services that are “fragmented” and lack an “overarching vision”

Six candidates for governor of Rhode Island took part in a forum on senior issues on Wednesday.Handout

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s services for older residents and long-term care are “fragmented, spread across a number of state agencies, lack stable leadership, and a coherent and overarching vision.”

That was the basis for a question posed to six candidates for governor on Wednesday by Maureen Maigret, chair of the Aging in the Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council.

Given those shortcomings, Maigret asked the candidates if they would “pledge to address the needs of our growing older population and provide the leadership and resources necessary to create and implement a Rhode Island strategic plan on aging.”

The Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and 17 co-sponsoring agencies hosted the gubernatorial candidate forum at East Providence High School, posing seven questions to Republican candidate Ashley Kalus and five Democratic candidates: Governor Daniel J. McKee, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes, former secretary of state Matt Brown, and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz. The forum is available on YouTube.

Gorbea responded to Maigret’s question by saying, “You know, the fact that we are even having this question on the table is, I think, a real indictment of our current governor’s work.”

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She noted McKee was lieutenant governor before becoming governor in March 2021 when former governor Gina M. Raimondo was named US commerce secretary, and she said chairing the Long Term Care Coordinating Council is “one of the few responsibilities” of the lieutenant governor’s office.

“As governor, I would absolutely within the first six months have specific plans in place that would be informed not just by data but by community partners,” Gorbea said.

McKee said he worked with “some very good people” on the Long Term Care Coordinating Council when he was lieutenant governor from 2015 to 2021, and he is proud of the work they did on major issues such as Alzheimer’s disease.

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“We have the first state-approved Alzheimer’s plan in the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “That made us eligible for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars — light distances away from other states in terms of that work.”

McKee said his administration is developing a strategic plan, Rhode Island 2030 plan, that includes many areas, including aging and long-term care. And he said he intends to issue executive orders regarding a master plan on aging and instructing departments to look for “revenue streams” that could help seniors.

Muñoz said he would develop a master plan for aging. “It is important to bring all the departments together,” he said. “There needs to be a comprehensive approach.”

For example, the plan should address transportation, and he favors creating a trolley system between cities, Muñoz said. “Accessibility is everything,” he said.

The plan also should also address housing and whether it’s near nutritional resources, he said. “We might not have the food deserts in terms of New York City, but we certainly have areas, especially in South Providence, where a 71-year-old person is probably going to walk to a grocery story that has limited options.”

Brown agreed with the need for a strategic plan on aging. “There are a whole host of issues that are contributing to struggles for seniors to get by, and those issues are interrelated,” he said. “Housing, income, health issues, racial disparities, transportation challenges. So it only makes sense to approach those in a comprehensive way.”

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Foulkes, too, called for a strategic plan, saying, “This connects with the fact that I’ve led at large scale and produced results my whole life. The only reason I am in this race is I really want to make a difference for people.”

She said that when she was a CVS executive, she led 200,000 employees and had responsibility for an $80 billion budget.

“I know it’s different than state government,” Foulkes said, but “I think it’s so relevant because what that was all about was having great people, a good plan, producing results in the short term, and having a long-term strategy where we could really serve our customers.”

Kalus, a health care executive, said she believes in “a whole of government approach” and would have the strategic plan available in 120 days. “If you don’t have deadlines, you don’t actually achieve anything,” she said. “I’m a problem solver, so I believe in standards, metrics, benchmarks, and also deadlines.”

Kalus said she would put the plan on a website that would show the benchmarks and the state’s progress toward those goals. “That is the only way to hold government accountable,” she said. “And I like people to hold me accountable as governor.”

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted Black residents and other residents of color, particularly older residents and health care workers.

So he asked if the candidates if they’d commit “to doing better for the Black and brown communities by ensuring every state agency collects and analyzes data on race, ethnicity, and language spoken for the people they serve within your first two years in office and make this data available to the public and make improvements as needed in the second half of your term?”

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Brown said he would commit to that, but he said the state can’t wait two years to address racial disparities. He said Black seniors and other seniors of color disproportionately rely on Medicaid, so one of the most important steps Rhode Island can take is to reverse “those cruel and immoral cuts to Medicaid that the people running things in this state made.”

Brown said the state also must address the health disparities caused “by the fact that the people in power have allowed industrial polluting industries to line themselves in our largely Black and brown communities,” such as areas around the Port of Providence.

Foulkes said the pandemic “put a bright light” on racial disparities that already existed in areas such as rates of asthma and diabetes.

She called doing a better job than was done during the pandemic to engage with faith and community leaders. She called for turning many schools into community centers where seniors and others could address their health care needs. And she called for expanding the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program to help increase the number of Black nurses and other nurses of color in Rhode Island.

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Kalus said she “deeply, deeply” believes in diversity and health equity. As an executive at Doctors Test Centers, she has had state contracts to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccine services, and said, “I will tell you that my impression of interacting with the state on contracts is the state doesn’t really care from what I saw.”

“I had to force my (Equal Employment Opportunity Council) reports, which show the diversity of my organization, to leadership,” Kalus said. “There was no request for the reports, and there wasn’t really much interest.”

Gorbea said, “Of all the people here on the stage, you can talk about diversity and equity all you want, but I’ve been working it for 30 years.”

She said it’s important to not just collect data but to present it in a way that the public can grasp, and state government needs to use that data to address health inequities in Rhode Island. “The data is not enough,” she said. “We need to have community partners.”

McKee said, “This issue has been a high priority in my life, not just as governor, and it’s reflected in my administration.” He said Vincent has made recommendations to his administration, and he said, “Our judicial system is beginning to reflect those recommendations.”

Rhode Island has rarely met the requirement to provide 10 percent of state contracts to minority-owned businesses. But McKee said, “We are now following the 10 percent rule in terms of minority and women owned businesses. This has happened over like 15 months. What can you expect from me over four years?”

Muñoz noted that he serves on the Rhode Island COVID-19 Equity Council with Vincent. “I think we can both agree that this for-profit health care system was not designed to support communities of color,” he said. “It was designed to support the elites.”

Muñoz said that at first the COVID-19 testing system required a referral from a physician, although many people didn’t have their own doctors, and he and other advocates objected to inequities in the vaccination rollout.

“We continue to have reactive administrations that do the bare minimum until we call them out,” he said. “We need things to change.”


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