Photo of: Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography
CHARLESTON — Bill Crouch, cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources since 2017, will retire at the end of the year amid a cloud of controversy and pressure from lawmakers.
Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday that Crouch will be retiring effective Saturday, December 31.
dr Jeffrey Coben, associate vice president for health affairs at West Virginia University and dean of the School of Public Health, will serve as DHHR’s interim secretary.
Crouch will continue to serve Justice and DHHR in an advisory capacity while the search for a new permanent Cabinet Secretary begins.
“We should absolutely all be very grateful and appreciative of the work he’s done because it’s hard, almost thankless work in many ways,” Justice said Monday during a virtual announcement from the State Capitol Building. “Absolutely, Bill Crouch has guided us through all of this and has done an absolutely amazing job and we should be grateful for the service he has rendered to all of us.”
According to his letter of resignation Monday, Crouch said he planned to remain as DHHR secretary until the implementation of the $1 million organizational assessment and strategic plan for DHHR prepared by McChrystal Group and released in November. However, Crouch said recent controversy aimed at his leadership of DHHR has become a distraction from the agency’s work.
“As everyone knows, the department has been under constant scrutiny over the past year,” Crouch said. “Although most of the allegations were directed at me, the department has suffered. DHHR employees have become collateral damage. And that’s wrong. The people at DHHR are the most dedicated and brightest people I have ever worked with and I thank them for their hard work and loyalty.”
Recently, Crouch and DHHR have come under fire over issues with the mentally and developmentally disabled (IDD) community and allegations of abuse and neglect at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals.
According to a Nov. 14 letter sent to Disability Rights of West Virginia, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Civil Rights said it would open an investigation into DHHR based on complaints filed by Disability Rights.
Disability Rights filed a complaint with HHS alleging that DHHR was unlawfully discriminating based on disability. The DHHR is accused of failing to properly administer the state’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) Waiver Program.
The DHHR has also been criticized for the serious shortage of child care workers, which exacerbates the number of children in foster care in the state.
“We have to keep improving, but the perception that everything is broken is wrong,” Crouch wrote. “We have done and continue to do great work for the people of West Virginia. Practically all of our problems are personnel problems. We have staff shortages in all offices and areas of DHHR, from lawyers and nurses to catering staff at our facilities.”
Crouch was appointed DHHR Cabinet Secretary by the Judiciary in 2017. He retired in 2016 from Bill J. Crouch and Associates, a health consulting firm he founded in 1987. Prior to 1987, Crouch was executive director of the West Virginia Health Care Cost Review Board.
“He’s been with us for almost seven years now,” Justice said. “He came out of retirement and took that position; a position that oversees around 6,000 employees. A position that was in need of improvement over decades and decades. Absolutely, a position that came with COVID and all the different effects of COVID.”
Coben, Crouch’s temporary successor and former emergency room physician, first joined WVU in 2004. He has served as Director of the Center for Rural Emergency Medicine, Director of the Injury Control Research Center, Vice Chair for Research in Emergency Medicine, Associate Dean for Operations in the School of Medicine, and Associate Vice President for Clinical Innovation, Planning and Operations at WVU’s Health Sciences Center .
“Actually, I’m primarily an ER doctor, so I’m pretty used to uncertainty; Situations where you need to act quickly,” Coben said after the announcement outside the governor’s reception room. “I’ve been at WVU for 18 years and during part of that time I’ve also served in transition positions when we had schools and programs going through leadership changes. I feel pretty comfortable in this form.”
As associate vice president of health affairs, Coben leads the State-University Partnership, a collaboration between WVU and DHHR established in 2017. The partnership provides guidance for DHHR’s Medicaid-based health care programs and offers services similar to those of a for-profit consulting firm. The partnership also includes embedded employees within the DHHR.
“What I like best is that during that time I’ve gained 12 years of experience working with several commissioners from the Bureau and other leaders within the DHHR,” said Coben. “I know a lot of people there. I think they are dedicated, hard working people. I understand that under the auspices of DHHR there is a lot that is under scrutiny and needs to be looked at. I just want to work with everyone to try and make the transition as smooth as possible when Secretary Crouch retires.
dr Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, and James Hoyer, former adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard and head of the state’s joint interagency task force on COVID-19 vaccines, will also serve as advisors to the Judiciary and DHHR finding a new Permanent Cabinet Secretary and implementing the recommendations of the McChrystal Group report. Marsh is Chancellor and Executive Dean of Health Sciences at WVU, while Hoyer is also Senior Associate Vice President of WVU.
“We are here to try in every way to improve the health and well-being of our citizens; to provide every West Virginian with access to critical health resources and to do our best to protect those most vulnerable in our state, whether because of the COVID risk or for our children or our elders or people who don’t have the same skills, to get what they need, like others do,” Marsh said. “We are very committed as a team to helping the governor in every way.”
“Clay and I will do our best to provide the governor with as much support and advice as we can to move things in the direction that we need to continue moving in as a state,” Hoyer said. “Governor, we will do our best to help get you where you want us and where we need to be as a state.”
In addition to spending the last nearly three years dealing with COVID, DHHR has battled the state’s systemic poverty, poor public health outcomes, record-breaking drug use and drug overdose deaths, a large number of children in state and out-of-state foster care and allegations of abuse and neglect in state hospitals.
The DHHR came under scrutiny last year, with the judiciary vetoing a bill that would have required the DHHR to be split into two divisions. Instead, Justice called for a comprehensive review of DHHR, with McChrystal Group being awarded a $1 million contract to create an organizational assessment and strategic plan for DHHR.
Lawmakers have expressed dissatisfaction with the McChrystal Group’s report, which recommended the creation of three new posts for assistant secretaries, integration teams to facilitate better communication and other senior management changes. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, released a statement Monday expressing optimism about the leadership changes at DHHR.
“There’s no question that DHHR isn’t in a good place and it’s going to take a lot of work to get things back on track,” Blair said. “We believe it will take legislative changes to make some of these major overhauls, but we hope that this change in leadership will bring about a change in management culture. We look forward to working with the interim secretary of the DHHR, Dr. Jeffrey Coben as we drive meaningful change in one of our state’s most important departments. We wish Secretary Crouch all the best in his retirement.”
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