HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- The governing body overseeing the Virginia Department of Health expressed disapproval and embarrassment as the agency's leader answered questions about controversial comments he made about race.
State Health Commissioner, Dr. Colin Greene, came under fire last week after the Washington Post reported he downplayed racial disparities in health and rejected racism as a public health crisis.
"You are the leader. You are the voice and the face for the Department of Health," said Dr. Holly Puritz, a member of the State Board of Health. “When you're speaking on our behalf, your words were very hurtful. Your words were damaging.”
The Board of Health, comprised of fifteen medical professionals across the state, was designed to provide policy and planning leadership for the health department. The board is also responsible for advising the governor and commissioner on public health policy issues.
During the board's regularly scheduled public meeting in Henrico County Thursday, members asked Greene several questions about his remarks to the Post and emphasized their stance on addressing racial disparities.
“Racism is a public health crisis," said board member, Dr. Patricia Kinser. "Racial bias is deeply embedded in many of the policies and institutions that shape the social determinants of health, including housing, employment, education, and access to healthcare."
Kinser asked Greene for a response.
"Allow me to reassure you that I am not so naive as to hold such a notion. Racism in many levels is most certainly a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes," Dr. Greene replied. "Rather than simply echo proclamations of a crisis, I've chosen to direct Virginia Department of Health to examine specific, measurable, meaningful outcomes to address this issue."
While Greene said he took issue with how his views were reported in the Post, board members pointed to direct quotes in the article and asked him to explain.
In one instance, Puritz wanted Greene to address a quote in which he said "racism" was a politically charged word, calling that "deeply troubling" and against everything she spent her career working toward.
“OK, I don’t have the quote in front of me, and the other thing I don’t remember, of course, is the context in which the discussion took place," Greene said.
“May I just say one thing? Those are strong words that you used, so I don’t understand how you wouldn’t remember the context of that when you’re discussing something that you note to be as politically charged as discussing racism," Puritz replied.
Board member James Edmondson, who brought a copy of the paper to the meeting, read it out loud: “If you say 'racism,' you're blaming white people, Greene said.”
Greene, who then remembered the context of that quote, said he was having a discussion with staff members about messaging to the public.
Greene explained what he was trying to say is that he preferred to focus on specific, detailed effects of racism in health, such as mortality rates for Black babies, rather than broad language.
“What I want to do is to avoid using language that, from the outset, is going to alienate a large chunk of the audience," he said. “I want to avoid being divisive.”
Board Chair, Faye Prichard, responded, "Dr. Greene, I think you can admit that if your goal was to not be divisive, you might have missed that mark."
Greene addressed another direct quote in the Post where he called the term "gun violence" a "democratic talking point." He reaffirmed the phrase can be off-putting to some Virginians, including those in rural southwestern Virginia because it dismisses the "dangers of all other forms of violence."
"Violence is something coming out of the heart of one human being, the desire to harm another, and I think we need to look deeply at that," Greene said. "And the use of firearms is certainly a part of that, but it's not the entire picture."
"Denying the term 'gun violence' is every bit as bad as denying the term 'racism' as it applies to health outcomes," Edmondson said.
Greene maintained an additional point of contention in the article, that structural racism cannot be objectively measured, and he'd like for the department to be more intentional with its use of data.
"One of the problems of structural racism is it's not an objectively quantifiable variable," Greene said. "That's why I like to look at things that can be measured that are parts of structural racism."
"I'm a researcher in the field of marginalization and stigma and how it affects maternal child health, and in fact, we can measure structural racism and discrimination," Kinser said.
The Commissioner said he invited differences of opinions, but Chairwoman Prichard said she has heard otherwise from state health employees.
“Folks in your agency have reached out to us and said that they do not often feel safe in expressing differences in opinion, and I need you to be keenly aware of that," Prichard said.
Board members unanimously voted to approve a resolution stating the Commissioner embarrassed the board and issued guidelines saying Greene should not deny "basic scientific facts" moving forward. The guidelines also stated the Commissioner should not speak against values held by the board.
Governor Glenn Youngkin, who appointed Greene and is the only person who could remove him from the post, previously said he was disappointed by the commissioner's comments. The governor said Greene's remarks did not effectively communicate his administration's mission to close substantial gaps in health that minorities face but has not yet made a decision on whether to remove Greene.
Reacting to the meeting afterward, Edmondson said he was "not satisfied" with all of Greene's responses and was concerned that politics were being brought into an agency that should remain apolitical.
"His denial that politics is entering into this is, in my view, unjustified," Edmondson said. "This is entirely political."
He said he was not in a position to call for Greene's removal but did express disapproval.
"I’m disappointed in this Commissioner, and I would love to see somebody else [in the position,] but I don’t expect that’s likely to happen," he said.
Vice Chair Dr. Wendy Klein said she also had concerns following the meeting.
"The Commissioner worked to appease Board members today and to allay their many concerns, with a lot of walking back. He did not offer any actionable plan for closing the divide with VDH staff or with stakeholders, so it remains to be seen whether his actions will match his words going forward," Klein said.
Reporter Tyler Layne intended to ask Greene if he had a message he wanted to send to Virginians who were offended by his comments.
“I was just wondering if you had a moment to answer any questions," Layne asked.
“The only comments I’m going to make are in the meeting," Greene responded.
“But do you have a message for Virginians as a whole," Layne said.
“Just what I said in the meeting," Greene said.
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