Department of Health offices in Richmond, Va. Virginia. The agency’s response to an outbreak of monkeypox has been limited by a shortage of vaccines and other treatments. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Glenn Youngkin described Virginia’s top health official as “very capable” to lead the state’s Department of Health while distancing himself from the latter’s comments on the role of racism in health disparities.
The governor’s comments, made Tuesday after a ceremonial budget signing, come on the heels of a June 15 article in the Washington Post in which Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene said he had yet to see “compelling evidence” that racism played a role in well-documented maternal and infant health disparities for Black mothers and their babies. He also took issue with the term “racism,” telling the Post that “if you say ‘racism,’ you’re blaming White people.”
Some Virginia Department of Health staffers also told the Post they were fearful for their jobs after Greene downplayed the role of racism in health disparities.
Lawmakers, public health experts and political groups including the Virginia chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus have denounced Greene’s statements and questioned his ability to lead the department. Healthcare for All Virginians, a coalition with members including the Virginia Poverty Law Center and Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, described his views as “mired in racial stereotypes and antithetical to the most basic expectations we hold for Virginia’s public servants.”
Greene has since backpedaled on some of his comments, expressing regret that his statements left staff feeling “discounted or disrespected.”
And while Youngkin described himself as disappointed with the commissioner’s “inability to communicate” on an important message, he also said he had not made a decision on Greene’s future with the agency, despite an apparent willingness to keep him in the department’s top role.
“He has got to prove that he can do this job,” Youngkin said. “I believe he can. And we’re going to support him to prove that.”
The commissioner’s comments last week represented a 180-degree shift for state health leaders after former Gov. Ralph Northam announced a 2025 goal to eliminate racial disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. In Virginia, Black women die from pregnancy-related complications at more than twice the rate of White women, and former Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver also made eliminating those differences a cornerstone of the department.
Over the last two years, state lawmakers have also pushed for legislative changes to address those disparities, expanding Medicaid coverage to recipients for a year after childbirth and authorizing payments for doula services.
Youngkin also described closing gaps in maternal mortality as a central objective for his administration, pledging to expand access to care on Tuesday without outlining specific policy measures he planned to pursue.
Asked whether racism played a role in those disparities, he responded that they did.
“I believe we find ourselves in a moment today where the historic disadvantages that Black mothers and Black children have suffered absolutely contribute,” Youngkin said.
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