Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday unveiled Womazetta Jones as her nominee to lead the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the sprawling secretariat that delivers services to about a third of the state’s residents.
“She is a mission-driven, values-driven professional with a 25-year track record of success and system transformation in social services organization who is driven by her values and principles,” Raimondo said.
Jones, 50, who is coming from a job directing social services in Ramsey County, Minnesota, was introduced during a news conference at the Providence Community Health Center on Prairie Avenue in Lower South Providence. The location was chosen, Raimondo said, because of a request by Jones to be in a community setting.
The Executive Office of Health and Human Services is made up of four branches: Health; Human Services; Children, Youth and Families; and Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. EOHHS encompasses billions of dollars in state spending.
Raimondo said Jones is the person to take the secretariat – buffeted in recent years by the troubled implementation of the UHIP IT system -- “to the next level.”
“We have to deliver programs and services that are respectful to our cultures who make up Rhode Island and the economic diversity,” Jones said, “so we can ensure that the most vulnerable individuals -- sometimes not seen by so many – as they walk right by them, but they don’t see them. But we have to do better to help everyone.”
Jones, a Chicago native, said she became interested in social work as a young girl with a grandmother who cared for an extended group of people. “It was a vocation that came naturally to me, because it was what I knew,” she said. “For me, this career is not something I chose. It chose me. It’s who I am. It’s what I was raised to be.”
She began her career as a child welfare specialist in Chicago and later held a position responsible for statewide children protection practices in Illinois
Asked about the top challenges facing EOHHS, Jones said they include ensuring access and controlling costs for Medicaid and RI Bridges, the state’s name for UHIP.
“Whether it’s Chicago or Ramsey County, Minnesota, or Rhode Island, social services staff, providers and advocates have to keep consumers’ voices front and center,” she said. “You have to truly, authentically do community engagement and recognize the impact and the role of health and racial disparities and inequities.”
Jones is expected to face Senate confirmation in the weeks ahead. She is slated to begin working July 22.
She said her first name has been passed down through generations of her family and dates to the time of slavery, adding, “It took me a lot of yeras to appreciate it.”
The governor’s first HHS secretary, former Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, was initially seen as a smart choice because of Roberts’ background in healthcare policy. But Roberts stepped down in 2017 amid ongoing problems with UHIP.
Without mentioning UHIP by name, Raimondo said controversy has sometimes overshadowed success involving HHS agencies.
So the governor used the news conference as a bit of pep talk for her HHS team, including acting HHS Director Lisa Vura-Weiss; Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, DCYF Director Trista Piccola; Elderly Affairs Director Rose Jones; Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn; Senior Adviser Tom Coderre. (The governor also mentioned Human Services Director Courtney Hawkins and said she was on assignment in Washington, D.C.)
Raimondo said accomplishments at HHS include a two-thirds reduction in the state’s uninsured rate, with 100,000 additional people gaining insurance coverage; a highly-rated health insurance exchange; reductions for two years in opioid overdose deaths; the elimination of lines for DHS services; and progress in placing more kids in foster care and addressing problems at DCYF.