Improving the mental health of children and adults has been a passion of yours for a long time. What are the roots of this abiding interest?

This goes back to when I first got elected to the Senate in 2008. I made a promise/commitment to be the “eyes, ears and mouth à sight, hearing/listening and voice” for, first and foremost, my district (District 12 – Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton and Newport), and then, most importantly, all Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents: seniors confined to their home/assisted living/nursing homes, children in the care of the state, and individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Mental health has also been front and center for me. I believe I’m living up to the promise/commitment and will continue to fulfill that promise as long as the voters of District 12 return me to the State House. I am a firm believer in “say what you do and do what you say.”  It’s about accountability.

And what are a few of the major mental-health initiatives you have helped shepherd through the General Assembly over the years?

Working collaboratively with my Senate colleagues, there are a few notable initiatives, including establishment and funding for the Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers (CCBHCs), initiating a comprehensive review of Eleanor Slater Hospital – specifically the need for the establishment of a continuum of care across the state, including a replacement for the Zambarano facility in Burrillville with the instantiation of a Long Term Acute Care Hospital (LTACH) – and funding for a feasibility study to assess options for safety barriers on the our state’s bridges, including the Newport Pell, Mount Hope, Jamestown Verrazzano and Sakonnet River bridges. These initiatives have resulted from my chairmanship on the Senate Committees on Finance and Rules, Government Ethics & Oversight. 

We as a state need to ensure we remain fixated on establishing a continuum of care as it relates to mental health care.  This has been lacking in the state for many, many years, and we can ill afford to have this languish any longer.  We need to hold each other mutually accountable.

What are the challenges that remain?

It’s critical we stay the course on funding the CCBHCs and move “off the dime” in earnest to begin the construction of the LTACH on the Zambarano campus.  Additionally, we need to ensure we appropriately fund the needed services, the rates of which will be informed by the recently begun – and long overdue – formal, regular health and human services rate review/setting process.  This was made possible with the enactment of the FY’23 budget and is being led by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner (OHIC).  OHIC Commissioner Cory King (Acting) and his team are doing an exemplary job with this effort, which is in its first phase with results from this phase due on September 1, 2023.  Appropriately funding these services will be a FY’25 budget priority, and I expect to see those proposals in the Governor’s proposed budget to be introduced in January 2024.

Same two questions regarding improving the lives of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, another longstanding passion.

As I previously indicated, my long-standing passion to improve the lives of those with intellectual/development disabilities goes back to my promise/commitment to be the “ … voice …” for our state’s most vulnerable residents. 

Rhode Island faces additional challenges in addressing the needs of individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities.  In 2013, the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) notified the State of RI that it had initiated an investigation into whether the State has violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for failure to comply with the Olmstead Act.  In 2014, the State signed a Consent Decree which was expected to be completed in April 2024.  In a recent federal court hearing, the State was notified that the April 2024 deadline would need to be extended as we won’t have met the metrics, etc., which were agreed to in the Consent Decree, including subsequent Court Orders.

This year’s budget includes an unprecedented, and long overdue $75M investment in services and programs impacting individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities.  While we established a “$15 in 5” initiative in 2018, to bring the starting hourly wage for direct support professionals (DSPs) to $15 in 5 years, we exceeded that goal, and today the starting DSP wage is $20/hr.  Much of this is driven from the Court Order associated with the aforementioned Consent Decree.

Additionally, as it relates to the Olmstead Act, we in Rhode Island do not have an Olmstead Plan.  While the administration initiated an effort to develop one over a year ago, little to no progress has resulted, which is shameful.  While an Olmstead Plan would address challenges and issues associated with individuals with intellectual/development disabilities, it would seek to ameliorate the potential Olmstead violations associated with Rhode Islanders with mental health challenges as well as children/adolescents, etc., in the care of our state’s child welfare agency, specifically those on waiting lists for least restrictive settings for services or just plain basic services.

And again, what are the roots of this passion?

My passion is rooted in the promise/commitment to ensure that the needs of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable populations are front and center at the State House, as the majority of these folks have challenges getting there to advocate as desired.

January is a long way off and change is a given, but do you have any sense now of the major issues that will be before the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January?

The health and human services rate review process is sure to recommend higher reimbursement rates, which will help address longstanding challenges but also present fiscal challenges in meeting the need.  This requires steadfast support to get over the goal-line and will need public engagement and advocacy to accomplish this. The public input and support for this will be paramount, and I encourage all to get engaged and support this critical need.

Economic slowdown remains a real possibility. Through the state budget process, we have worked hard to make smart investments. We have directed one-time revenue sources towards one-time expenditures and invested in ways that will strengthen our economy longer-term. Now that federal stimulus funds have been allocated, we will have to continue to make smart, if more difficult, decisions going forward from here.

For anyone who may not be familiar with you, give us a bit of your personal background.

My wife of just about 40 years and I are originally from Connecticut.  We moved here in 1983.  We have two married daughters and a total of five grandchildren, who we see very, very often.  We are certainly blessed.  As we say, there is nothing more important than family.  And, as many are aware, I am an avid New York Yankees fan.  Some will stop reading now, and that’s okay 😉.

Where are you employed, and in what capacity?

I am employed at Raytheon in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where I’m about to begin my 41st year.  I am currently the Undersea Systems Chief Engineer.

What about your political background? Your state Senate district, 12, includes Little Compton, Middletown, Newport and Tiverton. What offices did you hold before?

Prior to getting elected to the Rhode Island Senate in 2008, I served two terms on the Middletown Town Council from 2004 to 2008.

Your General Assembly page, State of Rhode Island General Assembly, lists other involvements, including with the Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair and St. Lucy’s Church, where you serve as a Lector and Eucharistic Minister. Can you tell us a bit about these two?

RI Science and Engineering Fair – For approximately the last two decades, I’ve been involved as a volunteer judge, including judging the annual top 10 projects, and additionally involved in recruiting other volunteer judges.  We need more engineers and scientists, especially women.  And it’s critical we engage our youth as early as possible in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  Even if they don’t pursue a STEM field, they’re get trained in critical thinking. 

St. Lucy’s Church – After moving to Rhode Island some 40 years ago, we became parishioners of St. Lucy’s Church in Middletown.  Anyone who knows me, knows that when I become a part of a something, I offer my services however and wherever I can add value. As with others, my faith is very important to me and shapes who I am and how I act.  At least I hope it does …

How do you manage your personal, professional and political lives? There are only so many hours in a day!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I give 110% to everything with which I’m involved. And sleep is overrated.  Only kidding, sleep is very important!  Things get done, not because I do them.  At the Statehouse we have great support staff – Fiscal, Policy and Legislative.  They do the heavy lifting.  I take absolute accountability for everything with which I’m involved.  When things go well the team appropriately gets the credit.  When things don’t go well, I take full responsibility.  I’ve learned this very early in my upbringing from my parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, and patterning my behavior/actions after successful leaders.

Do you have any thoughts on how truth can best be preserved in this age of disinformation?

Media literacy is essential in this age when there are so many sources of information (and disinformation). We need to ensure Rhode Islanders — really all Americans — are educated about reliability of news sources, so they aren’t giving the same weight to a random YouTube video as they are to thoughtful journalistic pieces from reputable news sources. We further need to ensure Rhode islanders, and all Americans, have a thorough understanding of civics and how their government works. Critical thinking is paramount and something for which there is no substitute.