Richard Charest confirmed as EOHHS Secretary

Providence Democratic lawmaker is only dissenter in otherwise near unanimous Senate vote

By: - May 23, 2023 6:54 pm

Richard Charest stands to acknowledge applause in the Rhode Island Senate Chamber following his confirmation as Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — The governor’s nominee for secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) was confirmed by the Senate in a near unanimous vote Tuesday.

Gov. Dan McKee nominated Richard Charest, who served as director of the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH), starting June 2021, on May 12.

Before joining BHDDH, Charest worked as CEO of Ocean State Healthcare from 2018 to 2019. He has been the president and founder of the 180 Degree Solutions, LLC, based out of North Smithfield, since 2020. He has been an adjunct professor of management at Bryant University since 2016.

Charest replaced Ana Novais, who served as interim secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, since the departure of Womazetta Jones in May 2022. She reverted back to her former role as assistant EOHHS secretary upon Charest’s confirmation.

“Over the course of more than three decades in the healthcare industry, Mr. Charest has been an extremely capable leader,” Sen. Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat and chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee which recommended Charest in a hearing on May 16, said during discussion on the Senate floor. “Those who know and work with Mr. Charest know him as a leader who prides transparency and results.

“As director of BHDDH, he has performed exceptionally well in one of the most challenging positions in state government.”

EOHHS is tasked with monitoring state health systems and ensuring access to quality health care to Rhode Islanders. Its spending accounts for approximately 40% of the state budget.

As director of BHDDH, Charest led the agency through a crisis at the Eleanor Slater Hospital where accusations of a toxic work environment for patients and workers led to the site losing accreditation from The Joint Commission — a national nonprofit healthcare accreditation organization — in June 2021, around when Charest rose to the office. The majority of senators who spoke during his confirmation credited Charest with turning the Eleanor Slater Hospital around and helping it regain accreditation in Dec. 2021.

On Tuesday, BHDDH announced that the new Rhode Island State Psychiatric Hospital, which opened last October in Cranston, was accredited by The Joint Commission. The hospital treats patients with severe mental illness deemed incompetent to stand trial, those deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, and Adult Correctional Institutions inmates unable to receive the level of medical care they need at that facility.

“It is true that no one is perfect and we all make mistakes but no one has turned a department around as quickly as he has,” said Minority Leader Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican.

No one has turned a department around as quickly as he has.

– Minority Leader Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican

“The work the director has been able to do with regards to what’s needed at Eleanor Slater Hospital, he’s been working to bring that forward,” Sen. Louis DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, said. “A person with his experience is exactly what we need.”

Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat, was the lone dissenting vote to Charest’s nomination. He argued the McKee administration deserves the credit for the department’s turnaround.

“This is a really bad nomination,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people in our state rely on EOHHS and we need a nominee who is going to do a good job.

“There are real human consequences here.”

Focus on reform

Charest said at his confirmation hearing on May 16 before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that his top priority was the completion of an assessment of state health systems to find gaps in coverage and determine goals moving forward. 

“We need to focus on our continuum of care and address mental health needs before an individual needs to be hospitalized or before an individual has contact with the criminal justice system,” Charest said at the hearing. “Changes like this will not happen overnight. But it must begin for us to start moving forward with our goals.”

Charest said he also intends to tackle the office’s staffing crisis as the state goes through the Medicaid renewal process.

Yet on Tuesday, the secretary kept his comments brief.

“I’m happy that the governor chose to nominate me,” he told Rhode Island Current. “I am proud to serve.”

Louis Cerbo became BHDDH’s acting director upon Charest’s confirmation. He will serve until a new director is nominated and confirmed.


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.