The state’s top official overseeing the medical response to the Flint water crisis is violating state law by only serving in a part-time capacity.
Because the current director of the Health and Human Services Department, Nick Lyons, is not a doctor, Michigan’s Public Health Code requires that the department appoint a “full-time” physician as the state’s chief medical officer. But Dr. Eden Wells is a half-time appointment.
She is a full-time employee at the University of Michigan, which contracted with the state for her to work half time as Michigan’s chief medical officer. The other half of Wells’ U of M responsibilities include teaching epidemiology and directing the U of M Medical School of Preventative Medicine Residency Program.
Both she and Lyons were appointed in April.
With the state facing unprecedented public health issues — the Flint water crisis and lead poisoning of children there, a Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak that’s killed at least nine people, students in the Detroit Public Schools’ attending classes in mushroom and mold-infested classrooms — critics believe a full-time position is needed. Moreover, the arrangement with the university, which may have been a cost-saving measure, raises issues about transparency in state government.
“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. “We have very many pressing health concerns in the state. We need someone who is focused on it full time.”
Detailing Wells’ responsibilities, Rick Fitzgerald, director of the U of M Office of Public Affairs and Internal Communications said, “She's basically splitting her time — 50 percent with university responsibility and 50 percent with the state of Michigan.” He confirmed that the state contracts with the university to fill this role.
Wells is board-certified in both internal medicine and preventive medicine. According to her profile on U of M’s website, her current activities involve “curriculum development, teaching, and applied public health practice training within the preventive medicine program; current research and practice activities include work in disaster epidemiology, and development and evaluation of surveillance for emerging infectious disease threats.” She worked previously for the state’s health department as a medical consultant and medical epidemiologist from 2004-2011.
U of M and state officials, despite several requests, have not provided the contract between the state and university, nor have they disclosed the total value of the contract or Wells annual salary.
Why the state has failed to appoint a full-time chief medical executive officer is unclear.
“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, press secretary 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.”
Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner 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. Eisner and U of M’s Fitzgerald said she was in Flint working on the crisis there.
"Without commenting on Dr. Wells' medical expertise or ability to hold this position, these allegations are troubling, particularly if they were done as a costsavings 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.
Wells has been the medical face of the response to the dual public health crisis unfolding in Flint due to decisions to not properly treat Flint River water as a source of drinking water for the city. There has been an alarming spike in lead in the water, and that in turn has shown up in a number of Flint-area children and at least two dogs. Lead is a long-term neurotoxin linked to behavioral and developmental issues in children.
On top of that, health authorities in the county believed an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease — a pneumonia — may have been linked to the water shift. Over two years, and what health authorities including Wells called “two waves” of outbreaks, at least 87 people were diagnosed with the disease and at least nine died between March 2014 and June 2015.