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Sundlun’s other legacy- RIte Care

July 22, 2011

Thanks to the Providence Journal’s Felice Freyer for educating me about the late Governor Bruce Sundlun’s often forgotten contribution to Rhode Island- he created the foundation for the state’s nationally acclaimed health care program for low income children and families now known as RIte Care.

The original program, before Sundlun took office, was called RIte Start. Sundlun added on something called RIte Track and then the two were combined to create RIte Care.  It included a much smaller population of low income mothers and children. But Christy Ferguson, the former director of the Department of Human Services and architect of the fully realized RIte Care program, says that first step made all the difference.

I often say that if I had been the person at the very beginning, I might not have gone in that direction. But once he went in that direction, he gave us really a foundation in Rhode Island to do something that was extraordinary and we were able to build on that. So I always give credit where credit is due to him. He had the guts to start.

Ferguson says Sundlun didn’t know a lot about health policy. He just knew the system wasn’t working and he trusted his advisers to work on a solution. When they came back with a plan to provide managed care for low income pregnant women and their children, he fought for the proposal with everything he had.  She says that’s why Rhode Island succeeded in creating the program when other states failed.

Governor Sundlun was stubborn. And once he decided that something was going to happen, he just kept pushing it. And in places where they were really trying to compromise and be a little less of a bulldog about it, they really didn’t get as far and they weren’t able to do anything quite as revolutionary.

Most of the remembrances of Sundlun will include the way he handled the state’s banking crisis, but will history remember his contribution to the state’s health care system? Ferguson says she hopes so.

It’s always hard for people to be remembered for their legacy in social services programs, honestly. And the banking crisis is such a fundamental part of the fabric of the state and it affected so many people. I hope that it [RIte Care] will be remembered as one of his signature contributions to the state… There needs to be something that makes that one of his clear legacies.

Sue Pegden, Sundlun’s former press secretary and speech writer, thinks those who are involved in medical care and who worked with Sundlun will remember his fight to create the health insurance program.

It was just as important as his ability to solve the banking crisis. It truly was. If you look at what he did during that entire administration it was truly amazing… It was the banking crisis, I think we had a 200 million deficit at the time, we had a prison riot, we had a hurricane… he built an airport. Despite everything that was going on, everything that was thrown at him, the high unemployment rate, everything, he was able to do some of these things that made enormous differences in people’s lives.

Christy Ferguson tells me she’s hoping to write more about the development of health care reform in Rhode Island, so stay tuned for more details on Sundlun’s contribution.

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