Michigan creates civil service physician job for Flint defendant paying $180K

Karen Bouffard and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Dr. Eden Wells listens as Genesee District Judge William Crawford reads through a prepared statement during a hearing Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Genesee District Court in downtown Flint, Mich.  Wells, Michigan's chief medical executive, will stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges in a criminal investigation of the Flint water crisis, a judge ruled Friday.

The state's health department has created a nearly $180,000-a-year civil service "advisory physician" job for Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells that starts Jan. 1, which prompted criticism from a prominent Flint Democratic lawmaker.

Moving her 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. Wells was originally set to leave state government at the end of the month.

On Friday, 67th District Judge William Crawford bound over Wells for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, obstruction of justice and lying to a law enforcement officer connected to the 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area. The pneumonia-like disease killed at least 12 individuals and sickened 79 others.

Crawford ruled that there was sufficient evidence that Wells knew about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak and was slow to warn other state officials and the public. Gov. Rick Snyder didn't issue a public warning until a hastily arranged mid-January 2016 press conference in Detroit.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services posted the job opening from Nov. 5 — the day before the midterm election — and closed it on Nov. 11, a Health and Human Services spokesman said. The new job pays $179,672 a year, the state confirmed, compared with the $184,000 salary Wells earned as Republican Snyder's medical executive in 2017, according to an MLive article.

A civil service job provides far more safeguards against firing compared with Wells' current appointed position. 

Civil service workers can be suspended without pay for up to seven days and sometimes longer while the state investigates their conduct, and firing them can be difficult. A probe normally can take weeks.

"Dr. Wells is excited for this opportunity to continue her life’s work in public health for the people of Michigan, in collaboration with her local and state public health colleagues," Wells' attorney Steve Tramontin said in a statement. 

The decision to create Wells' new position was made by Population Health Administration Acting Deputy Director Karen MacMaster, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said Tuesday.  She confirmed Wells was the only applicant for the job, which became effective last week on Dec. 2.

The state health agency has 49 employees who make $175,000 or more, according to Minicuci.

"MDHHS determined there was a need for an advisory physician to the Population Health Administration, as we already have with other administrations within the department," she said in a Tuesday statement. "This position will advise the administration on public health issues such as HIV, Hepatitis C, environmental health and more given the increasing focus on these and other public health issues in Michigan."

New health post 'ridiculous'

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, criticized the “ridiculous” new position for Wells and said he is skeptical the governor did not know about it.

“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.”

Asked about Wells’ new job Tuesday afternoon, Snyder said he “wasn’t even aware of that, in terms of her gaining that position.”

“But I’ve supported Dr. Wells,” the governor added during an end-of-year discussion with reporters, his last before leaving office Jan. 1.  

“Dr. Wells has done a lot of great work. Obviously, there’s the criminal issue going on — she has not been found guilty of anything — but if you look, she’s actually won awards from organizations for her work, actually in fact, helping deal with the Flint water crisis.”

The Whitmer transition team didn't respond to a request for comment.

Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon also has been bound over for trial on involuntary manslaughter and other criminal charges related to the Flint-area Legionnaires' outbreak.

Civil service punishment

Six state environmental and health workers were suspended without pay because of their roles in the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis — Stephen Busch, Michael Prysby, Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook from the state Department of Environmental Quality and Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Their pay was reinstated in August 2016 as they awaited preliminary hearings on criminal charges. Rosenthal subsequently reached a plea deal with Special Prosecutor Todd Flood. The preliminary exam hearings for the other five remain ongoing. 

Official state investigations were never initiated regarding ​​​​​​Wells and Lyon.

Snyder has allowed Wells and Lyon to remain on the job after criminal charges were brought a year and a half ago by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's legal team. Schuette called for their resignations.

Snyder noted the two "are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" and "continue to be instrumental in Flint's recovery." 

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley hold an end-of-the year roundtable with the media in the Romney Building in Lansing Tuesday.

Wells will lose her chief medical executive post Jan. 1 when Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer takes office.

Michigan health officials have been grappling with a variety of health challenges in addition to Flint. An outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in 2016 in Southeast Michigan sickened 906 residents as of Dec. 5,  with 729 hospitalizations and 28 deaths.

The state had 2,729 overdose deaths in 2017, an increase of 8.7 percent over the prior year. Sexually transmitted diseases also increased in 2017, as part of a national trend.  Rates of preterm birth increased statewide in 2017, when Detroit had the high preterm birth and infant mortality rates in the nation.