Feb. 9 2016 10:34 AM

State’s top medical officer not serving full time as required by law

TUESDAY, Feb. 9 — The state official overseeing the medical response to the Flint water crisis appears to be violating state law by only working part time.

Dr. Eden Wells is the state’s chief medical executive officer, which under the state’s Public Health Code is supposed to be full time when the head of the state Health and Human Services Department is not a physician. That has been the case since Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Nick Lyons as department director in April 2015.

Yet Wells splits her time evenly between the state job and the University of Michigan, U of M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed.

An April 30 press release issued by U of M when Wells was appointed to the state post said she will continue there as a professor of applied epidemiology and as the director of the school’s Preventive Medicine Residency Program.

Wells

“Either she needs to resign or become a full-time employee of the state of Michigan,” said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills. “With the Flint water crisis, the Legionnaire’s Disease, the Detroit Public Schools with classrooms filled with mold and mushrooms, we have very many pressing health concerns in the state. We need some one who is focused on it full time.”

But that is not what Wells is being paid for, according the University of Michigan.

"She's basically splitting her time — 50 percent with university responsibility and 50 percent with the state of Michigan," said Fitzgerald, director of the U of M Office of Public Affairs and Internal Communications. "The state contracts with the university to fill this role."

Questioned if he was stating that Wells was employed only part time as the state's chief executive medical officer, Fitzgerald said, "That's correct."

That is a violation of the law, say experts.

They point to the Public Health Code provisions on hiring a chief executive medical officer, which reads in part: “The chief medical executive shall be a full-time employee.”

“If accurate, this means that Dr. Wells is working as a part-time independent contractor in violation of the Public Health Code,” said Christine A. Yared, an attorney in Grand Rapids with experience litigating some aspects of the public health code.

Dave Murray a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, dodged direct questions related to the legality of the arrangement, instead issuing a statement saying Wells “has been putting in full time hours,” and “more so during this time of crisis.”

“Her expertise is needed as we move forward evaluating the health risks faced by city residents and determining ways to address these challenges,” he continued. “People in Michigan benefit from her continued connections to the University of Michigan, which keep her abreast of developments in the field and access to additional experts that can help the state as we address the Flint water crisis.”

Jennifer Eisner, spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, said in a statement Tuesday that Wells’ past experience with the department “benefits” the residents of Michigan.

“Regardless of the source of pay, Dr. Wells is available to the department full time for the emergency response in Flint,” Eisner wrote.

She declined to comment on the legality of the contractual arrangement with U of M and the state.

Wells was not available for an interview Tuesday afternoon because she was working in Flint, Eisner and Fitzgerald both said.

"Without commenting on Dr. Wells' medical expertise or ability to hold this position, these allegations are troubling, particularly if they were done as a cost-savings measure for the state by the Snyder administration,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group based in Lansing. “Given the current public health crisis, it's now more important than ever that Michigan reprioritize its commitment to ensuring we have healthy communities regardless of the cost."

Yared, the attorney, as well as Greimel raised concerns about transparency.

“There are also significant liability and legal problems, including the legal difference between an employee and an independent contractor, the role of the University in potential litigation and the question of who makes legal decisions about her documents and emails,” Yared said.

Obtaining documents related to the Flint water crisis has been a significant concern — with the governor refusing to release the emails of his top aides, which are not subject to the state’s open records law.

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