Nurse Kelly Florentino, on screen, and Vianna Hurley, of Coventry, listen to testimony about Pentec, a company no longer allowed to offer in-home care in Rhode Island.
PROVIDENCE — The stories were different, yet in one way, they were alike. Each centered around people who were suffering from debilitating diseases and severe pain.
And in each, there was a specialized method of care that made the pain more bearable — until the state Department of Health told the unlicensed company that provided the in-home service to stop.
Testifying before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee on Tuesday, Jason Scholle, of Narragansett, said the victim in his case was his mother, 59, and now going on 20 years living with multiple sclerosis.
She had benefited greatly from the service, he said, in which visiting nurses provided refills for the pain medication delivery pump implanted in her body. Without those visits, she had to be taken to the hospital for refills, and Scholle said that led to complications that have left her hospitalized and led doctors to remove the pump.
“It really stemmed from her not having help at home,” he said.
Vianna Hurley, 44, of Coventry, said she has had a medication delivery pump for five years and also benefited from the in-home service. But Hurley, who has chronic and acute pancreatitis, said she now has go to Boston for pump refills, typically about once every two weeks.
And Tracy Breton, a retired Providence Journal reporter, told the story of her husband, Doane Hulick, who died of lung cancer last fall but had also benefited from the visits by Pentec nurses to refill and recalibrate his pump.
“Last year, as my husband neared the end of his life, his best friend was his pain pump,” she said.
Breton’s husband died before the state told the company to stop the home visits, but it was Breton who publicized the situation in a Journal op-ed piece that ran on Aug. 25. And committee Chairman Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, said it was that article that prompted an investigation into what led a company that was already operating in 28 states to decide it did not want to operate in Rhode Island.
In testimony at earlier hearings, Health Director Michael D. Fine has said the department was merely following through on an admittedly arduous licensing process that required Pentec to first obtain a certificate of need — meaning the company had to prove its service is needed, affordable and safe.
But Michael R. Abens, general manager of the Pennsylvania-based Pentec Inc., said his company sought a license only to continue helping five patients who had been directed to Pentec by their doctors, not because it made sense from a business perspective. And he described the experience as long and confrontational, so much so that in July, he withdrew the company’s application.
By then, it had already been 10 months since the Health Department had told the company to stop providing its specialized service.
Family members weren’t the only ones to express frustration Tuesday.
Nicholas Oliver, executive director of the Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care Inc., called Pentec’s departure “a preventable mess.” He faulted both sides, saying the Health Department never called his organization to ask if it knew of another provider that could fill in until the day after the committee held its first hearing on the issue. And he said Pentec failed to look for a replacement, a charge Abens refuted.
“We absolutely worked our tails off to find another home health agency,” he told the committee.
Oliver also criticized the Health Department’s licensing process, saying his organization has provided the names of other agencies that are operating without a license, without any apparent response.
“This committee is only scratching the surface,” he said.
McNamara said he will be meeting with representatives from the Health Department and Pentec in the coming weeks, with the aim of bringing the sides together. He said he also expects legislation next year to revamp the licensing process.
“There shouldn’t be a regulatory iron curtain at the borders of our state,” he said.