Health workers ask ‘What are we doing here?’ as gov. decides to keep Dr. Greene as health chief

Virginia governor stands by health chief: 'He needs to get the job done'
Posted at 6:44 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 14:08:55-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Nearly a month after Virginia's top doctor made headlines for reportedly downplaying racial disparities in health, Governor Glenn Youngkin said Dr. Colin Greene will stay in his role as Health Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health.

"I have faith that he can get the job done, but he needs to get the job done," said Governor Youngkin Wednesday. "I think Dr. Greene is fully capable."

On June 15, Greene was quoted in the Washington Post saying "racism" and "gun violence" are politically charged words, rejecting racism as a public health crisis, and adding structural racism cannot be objectively measured. Greene would later reaffirm some of his viewpoints during a June 23 State Board of Health meeting.

The initial article prompted medical experts and lawmakers to speak out in opposition, and some even called for his removal.

Three weeks ago, CBS 6 asked Youngkin, who appointed Greene to his position, if he would remove Greene. At the time, the governor said he wasn't sure.

“I haven’t made a decision yet with Dr. Greene," Youngkin said on June 21.

When CBS 6 asked the governor on Wednesday if he had made a decision by now, Youngkin claimed he never wavered from standing by the Commissioner.

“I was actually pretty clear that we’re going to support Dr. Greene," Youngkin said.

Democratic State Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Black legislators called for a meeting with Governor Youngkin last Monday to discuss their concerns with Greene's language.

"The governor did not give us anything conclusive," Bagby said.

According to Bagby, the governor expressed faith that Greene could carry out the job, though he strongly disagreed. Bagby claimed Greene's comments were only a reflection of the governor's beliefs.

“Dr. Greene wasn’t speaking for Dr. Greene. He was speaking for the governor. When you’re in those roles, you speak for the governor, and if the governor is willing to allow someone to speak out for him in that fashion and keep him on board and express the faith that he expressed with us, we've got a challenge," he said.

While Youngkin has expressed "disappointment" in how he thought Greene miscommunicated the administration's goals to address racial disparities, Bagby wanted to know how the governor was making sure Greene doesn't cause a similar issue in the future.

“What corrective actions were being taken? There was no detailed feedback," Bagby said.

Bagby added he asked the governor to define "equity" during the meeting, but the governor refused.

"He's determined to erase equity from the equation as it relates to discussions that we have on the state level that impact not only health disparities, but also education disparities," Bagby said.

In response, a spokesperson for the Governor's Office sent the following statement:

"The Youngkin administration is committed to using data to deliver measurable results, not unfulfilled promises of equity, on behalf of women and especially those in communities of color where substantial maternal health gaps exist. We need to ensure we are addressing factors, including access to medical services and screening, prenatal care, nutrition, and counseling— to truly close the maternal health gaps." [Note: This article initially stated the Governor's Office did not respond. There was a delay in response due to a communication error on CBS 6's part.]

Meanwhile, Bagby said he has continuous worries for public health employees who "work day in and day out under that leadership."

An email recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request underscored a disconnect between the state and local levels of public health.

The evening the Post article was published, Acting Director of the Richmond-Henrico Health Districts Dr. Melissa Viray told her staff she understood if recent changes in leadership over the past six months left folks feeling "adrift or unclear."

"Sometimes things outside RHHD (events in our nation or locally, media coverage, etc.) intervene that blindside us, leaving us frustrated, angry, heartsick, and perhaps wondering, "What are we even doing here?" I think it needs to be said that it's a lot to process, and I really appreciate y'all hanging in there with all this after several years of pandemic response," Viray wrote.

Dr. Viray went on to emphasize the values of the local health districts which include "exposing and addressing root causes of disparities in our region including structural racism and discrimination."

The Governor's Office did not respond to CBS 6's questions asking if Youngkin directed Greene to undergo additional training following the controversy. However, during Wednesday's press conference, Youngkin suggested Greene could be removed if his standards aren't met.

“Every one of our cabinet secretaries understands that there are objectives that we have set as an administration, and we hold them accountable. That's my job as governor, and so we're supporting Dr. Greene. He can get this done. If he can't get it done, then that may change," Youngkin said.

Dr. Greene declined an interview and did not want to provide written responses to CBS 6's questions Wednesday.



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