Michigan public health official implicated in Flint water controversy given cushy new government job
A Michigan public health official currently facing charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from her role in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease during the Flint water crisis has managed to secure a cushy new job with the state, according to several reports.
As Ron Fonger of MLive/The Flint Journal reported on Tuesday, Dr. Eden Wells, who is currently serving as Michigan’s chief medical executive, was recently hired by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as an “advisory physician.” As such, Fonger reports, Wells will be entitled to “an annual salary of $179,672,” as well as “job protections she doesn’t currently have as chief medical executive.”
Wells was hired to fill this newly created position on December 2. In a statement, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services averred that the agency “determined there was a need for an advisory physician to the Population Health Administration,” and that the position would specifically advise on “public health issues such as HIV, Hepatitis C, environmental health and more.”
“MDHHS posted the position, and Dr. Wells was chosen for the role,” it continued.
The timing of the appointment is curious in itself, as it came five days before Wells was ordered to “stand trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, obstruction of justice and lying to a peace officer.”
Those charges arose from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint, Michigan that occurred during 2014 and 2015, around the same time as the lead water crisis in Flint. As NPR’s Rebecca Hersher reported, scientists confirmed a link between the Flint crisis and the outbreak in February of this year, determining that the bacteria responsible for the disease, Legionella pneumophilia, flourished in the contaminated water supply thanks to unusually low levels of chlorine in the municipal system. As Hersher notes in her report, that outbreak “killed 12 people and sickened at least 87” people in Flint.
On Friday of last week, Judge William Crawford ruled that Wells would face involuntary manslaughter charges. As the Detroit News’ Leonard N. Fleming reported at the time, Crawford came to believe that “Wells knew about the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint area” and agreed “with the prosecutor’s evidence that she was slow to act and warn other state officials.”
Wells’ attorneys had argued that she had no statutory duty to take any “specific act” to warn the public about outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. Prosecutors countered by pointing out that state law required Wells to “continually and diligently endeavor to prevent disease, promote the public health through … prevention and control of health problems of particularly vulnerable population groups” and make “investigations and inquiries as to (the) causes of disease and especially epidemics.”
The “advisory physician” position that Wells obtained was posted, according to reports, for just one week in November, not long after the midterm election. Wells was the only applicant. As Karen Bouffard and Jonathan Oosting of the Detroit News point out, moving Wells “from an appointed post to a civil service job would make it far more difficult for Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer to fire her when she takes office next month.” They go on to report that Michigan’s Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jim Ananich, has cried foul, declaring the move to secure Wells’ employment to be “ridiculous.” Per the Detroit News:
“They can’t make up an unclassified position like that, with no purpose, no meaning, no real responsibility, here with weeks to go without the governor knowing about it,” Ananich said in a phone call with The Detroit News. “This is part of a legal strategy. It’s not about protecting the citizens of Michigan.”
Ananich, a former history teacher, suggested it may be unprecedented that “someone under a felony indictment, bound over for trial, would be given a classified job, meaning they have protections, with such a cloud hanging over their head.”
Outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder told the Detroit News that he “wasn’t even aware” of the new posting or Wells’ application being accepted, before reaffirming his support for Wells.
Wells, who was appointed by Snyder to serve as the state’s chief medical executive in May of 2016, was allowed to perform her duties on a part-time basis, a controversy that was reported on by the Detroit Free Press’ Keith Matheny in 2016. Per Matheny:
As Flint’s water problems slowly emerged as a public health calamity over the spring, summer and fall of last year, the top medical officer at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was continuing her course load as an associate professor and medical residency program director at the University of Michigan, working for the health department only part-time, both the university and health department have confirmed.
The part-time arrangement for Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, appears to have plainly violated state law. Michigan’s Public Health Code states that if the director of the state health department is not a doctor, the director shall appoint a chief medical executive who is and “the chief medical executive shall be a full-time employee.”
Matheny goes on to note that the decision to allow the chief medical executive to serve on a part-time basis was made by Snyder upon taking office in 2011, and that every person to serve in the role thereafter did so as a part-time employee.