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Youngkin wants to further loosen hiring requirements for health district directors

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs legislation in February ending school mask mandates. His proposed...
Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs legislation in February ending school mask mandates. His proposed amendments to recently passed legislation would give Virginia’s state health commissioner total discretion over local health director appointments, a change some worry could undermine trust in public health authority.(Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury)
Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 12:28 PM EDT
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An amendment sought by Gov. Glenn Youngkin would significantly loosen criteria on who could lead local health departments, giving the state’s commissioner of health broad authority to appoint anyone they deemed qualified.

The proposed changes to legislation passed by the General Assembly have raised eyebrows among some local health officials amid concerns over waning trust in public health agencies and, in some cases, efforts to oust leaders elsewhere over early lockdown measures and other COVID-19 precautions. Some say the governor’s amendments would also put Virginia out of sync with surrounding states, including Maryland and North Carolina, where code spells out specific requirements for the role.

The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, aimed to address ongoing challenges in filling vacant health director positions. Under current Virginia law, only licensed physicians can lead local health districts, which typically offer salaries that are far lower than the state median for doctor pay.

As a result, recruitment has become increasingly difficult for the Virginia Department of Health, which oversees most of the state’s 35 local health agencies (currently only two — Arlington and Fairfax — are county-administered). At the time Mason presented his bill, there were five unfilled positions, forcing some local directors to oversee multiple departments.

The legislation, which passed both the House and the Senate with strong bipartisan support, added new qualifications for the role, an effort to expand the pool of potential applicants. The original bill added applicants with a master’s or doctoral degree in public health to the list of eligible candidates, as long as they had at least three years of professional experience. Another addition would have allowed hires “otherwise qualified for the position” as determined by the Virginia’s commissioner of health, who appoints directors in local districts overseen by the state.

Mason said the latter exception was aimed at Jon Richardson, an official for the Eastern Shore Health District with a background in environmental health. He currently serves as the local agency’s chief operating officer but hasn’t been able to take over as director due to the state’s current restrictions — despite playing a key role in leadership.

“That language was designed specifically to capture people like him,” Mason said. Before the bill was amended, though, physicians and public health professionals were still mentioned first in the list of qualifications for the role.

Youngkin’s amendment removed that language, authorizing the state to hire anyone deemed “otherwise qualified” by the commissioner. In a statement to the Mercury, Secretary of Health and Human Services John Littel suggested the original bill undercut Virginia’s focus on physicians as local health leaders, adding other hiring criteria before fully exploring how it would affect local districts.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy

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