Board of Health members express concern about lack of state health commissioner

By: - March 24, 2023 12:01 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Members of Virginia’s State Board of Health expressed worries Thursday about the ongoing lack of a state health commissioner after the General Assembly failed to reappoint former commissioner Dr. Colin Greene in February.

“Several of us are very concerned about the delay in the appointment of a qualified leader,” said Board Vice Chair Wendy Klein of the Medical Society of Virginia.

Board member and veterinarian Jim Shuler urged the appointment of a commissioner with “a strong background as a medical physician and a strong background in public health.” 

State law requires that the commissioner be a physician licensed to practice medicine in Virginia and certified by a recognized board overseeing a primary care specialty, as well as someone “experienced in public health duties, sanitary science and environmental health.”

In written remarks sent to the board chair, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel said Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration expects to complete interviews for the commissioner position by the end of the week and he is “hopeful the governor will make a decision shortly.”

While Littel was expected to appear in person at the board’s Thursday meeting, his letter said he was unable to attend “due to a commitment to the governor.” Schedules from the governor’s office show he was slated to appear alongside Youngkin at a listening session on fentanyl held at a Bristol high school Thursday morning.

The health commissioner seat has been empty since Feb. 10, after Democrats in the state Senate refused to confirm the appointment of Greene, a former Army doctor and local health district director. Greene had come under fire following a Washington Post story detailing his skepticism of the links between racism and health disparities, particularly regarding maternal health and mortality. Former state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, in a floor speech Feb. 7 said Greene’s continued leadership was “having a chilling effect” on state public health priorities identified by the Legislative Black Caucus.

In the absence of Greene or a replacement, Virginia Department of Health Chief Operating Officer Christopher Lindsay has been acting as the top official in the agency but is precluded from assuming the commissioner role by the state code’s requirements for the position.

“I’m there simply as the chief operating officer to continue to provide that day-to-day leadership for the agency in consultation with the secretary of health,” he told reporters Thursday. Even in the absence of a commissioner, he said, “I believe we’ve continued to thrive.” 

The lack of a commissioner doesn’t prevent the State Board of Health from operating, said several members of the administration. 

Between the Virginia Department of Health, Board of Health and health and human resources secretariat, “Everything is covered,” said Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources Leah Mills. 

Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Miyares, said in an email that “no board action requires approval by the commissioner.”  

In an interview, Shuler, who was appointed to the board by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, said he hopes the next state health commissioner will be “apolitical,” adding, “Health and disease, it doesn’t ask you if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

The board has “been in the dark” on the commissioner selection process, he said. And while he acknowledged the body has not previously been involved in vetting candidates for the role, he said that “anybody in their right mind in the political world should realize that input should be accepted.”


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.