Governor Youngkin takes issue with 'unfulfilled promises' of health equity in addressing racial disparities

Youngkin Adgenda
Posted at 1:47 PM, Jul 14, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. -- Governor Glenn Youngkin's administration has taken issue with what it called "unfulfilled promises of equity" as it relates to addressing health disparities, according to a spokesperson for the Governor's Office.

The governor's position came in response to Black lawmakers who called a meeting with Youngkin in the aftermath of controversial comments made by the state's top doctor regarding the role of race in public health.

In June, Health Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health Dr. Colin Greene, who was appointed by Youngkin, made headlines in the Washington Post for reportedly downplaying racial disparities, rejecting racism as a public health crisis, calling "racism" a politically charged word, and saying structural racism cannot be objectively measured.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus spoke out in opposition of the Commissioner's comments, some even calling for his removal. Last Monday, four legislators discussed their concerns about Greene's language and views with the governor.

During the meeting, Democratic Delegate Lamont Bagby, and Chairman of VLBC, said he asked Youngkin to define "equity," but he refused.

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

CBS 6 asked the Governor's Office about Youngkin's interaction with Bagby and why he did not support utilizing the word "equity" pertaining to public health. A spokesperson 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."

The sentiment appeared to align with actions of the administration taken earlier this year when it rescinded polices and resources related to diversity, equity and inclusion that it characterized as “discriminatory and divisive concepts” in the state's public education system.

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene
Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene

Meanwhile, health equity initiatives are underway across the Commonwealth, including the "Health Equity Fund" in the Richmond-Henrico Health Districts.

Local health leaders will give $5 million federal COVID-19 relief dollars to groups and "community-based projects aimed at reducing health disparities" in the Richmond area.

RHHD has received 80 nominations for funding since the effort was launched, and $230,000 in initial investments have been granted so far.

CBS 6 asked the Governor's Office if it would support such an initiative due to the name of the project and did not receive a response.

A newly obtained email through the Freedom of Information Act revealed a clash between the Richmond-Henrico Health Districts, which fall under the purview of Virginia Department of Health, and state leadership.

The evening the Washington Post article was published on June 15, RHHD Acting Director Dr. Melissa Viray told her staff changes in leadership over the past six months may have caused public health employees to feel "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.

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."

Del. Bagby also expressed worries for public health employees who have to "work day in and day out under that [Greene's] leadership."

Governor Youngkin previously expressed "disappointment" in how Greene miscommunicated what he said was the administration's goal to address racial disparities but recently told CBS 6 he will not remove Greene from his position.

However, the governor suggested the Commissioner could be fired if he does not meet his standards.

“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.

CBS 6 asked the Governor's Office about specific steps Youngkin would take to make sure Greene is aligned with the administration and does not misspeak in the future but has not received a response.

Del. Bagby said the Legislative Black Caucus has also not received a direct answer to that question.

"What corrective actions were being taken? There was not detailed feedback," Bagby said.

CBS 6 sent the following questions for Dr. Greene to the Virginia Department Health:

  • Has Dr. Greene had any time to think about the criticism he received from the Board of Health and what to do with it moving forward?
  • Has Dr. Greene had any conversations, training, etc. with the governor to better understand and communicate the admin's mission of tackling racial disparities?-What standards does Dr. Greene want to hold himself to moving forward to communicate that message and address those issues?
  • Has Dr. Greene had any conversations, training, etc. with the governor to better understand and communicate the admin's mission of tackling racial disparities?
  • What standards does Dr. Greene want to hold himself to moving forward to communicate that message and address those issues?
  • Does Dr. Greene view the recent controversy as a learning experience? If so, what has he learned?

A spokesperson replied, "Dr. Greene respectfully declines to do an interview or to provide written responses."

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