Task force doctor denies ‘conflict’ in Flint probe

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Task Force is downplaying a Democratic legislative leader’s concerns over his perceived conflict of interest because he served in the Snyder administration.

Dr. Matthew Davis

The connection of Dr. Matthew Davis, who was the state’s chief medical executive from March 2013 to the end of April 2015, to the state health department could “taint” the findings of the Flint task force, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

Davis served as chief medical executive during a period when other state officials were becoming aware of the burgeoning drinking water contamination crisis in Flint.

“The task force has come out with some pretty good work so far, and because of his obvious and glaring conflict, it’s going to cause, I think, long-term damage to the credibility of the report they put out,” Ananich said.

But Davis said he will not hold back any investigation into the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for which he once worked.

“Our goal on the task force is to be an independent, objective evaluator of all that went wrong and all that needs to be made right,” said Davis, a pediatrics, internal medicine and policy professor at the University of Michigan.

Snyder created the Flint task force in October, asking Davis and his colleagues to review government actions related to water use and testing in Flint, where residents cannot drink unfiltered water from their taps because of elevated lead levels sparked by the city’s switch to river water in April 2014.

Emails reviewed this month by The Detroit News show some state health officials discussed a suspected link between Flint water and a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease as early as October 2014 — more than a year before it was publicly announced. But Davis told The Detroit News he was not aware of the concerns at the time.

“I was not brought in on conversations regarding Legionella or lead that occurred with respect to Flint,” he said.

Legionnaires’ is a respiratory disease caused in warmer months by a bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia and sometimes death. The bacteria can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs, air-conditioning units and fountains.

The task force, which is expected to complete its investigation in coming weeks, includes members from both political parties, including former Senate Republican leader Ken Sikkema and former Democratic state Rep. Chris Kolb, along with Mott Children’s Health Center pediatrician Lawrence Reynolds and national water consultant Eric Rothstein.

Snyder told The Detroit News Monday he is comfortable with Davis being on the task force despite recent revelations over Legionella awareness in the state health department.

“I found him to be an extremely high-caliber, a very bright physician that does good community health work,” Snyder said of Davis. “The other part of it is, he’s one member of a broader group that clearly have a broad base of different backgrounds and experiences.”

The task force has so far written three letters to the governor, including an initial report that blasted the Department of Environmental Quality, prompting the resignation of Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman in late December.

The most recent letter also pressed the state health department to provide a robust response on the Legionella outbreak, including a request for federal support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our task force continues to be fully immersed in the work of understanding why the Flint water crisis happened and how to try to prevent it from ever happening again in Michigan or elsewhere,” Davis said.

Chris DeWitt, a task force spokesman and longtime consultant to the governor, said Davis has “been very helpful and active” with the investigation. The task force has not placed any restrictions on Davis because of his connections to the state, he said.

Ananich, who began calling for legislative hearings on the Flint crisis in October, reiterated those calls last week, saying questions over Davis’ role on the task force highlight the need for a legislative probe.

“I think the best way to resolve all these issues — not to say the task force shouldn’t finish their work — is to have a bicameral oversight committee with subpoena power,” he said. “I think it should be evenly matched between Democrats and Republicans, because this is not a political issue, this is a public health crisis.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said last week his caucus has begun discussing the prospect of hearings, but he suggested legislators are better equipped to review policy than investigate. The House Oversight Committee could begin holding hearings in March, after the final task force report is out.

Snyder, who has agreed to testify at an as-yet unscheduled congressional hearing, has apologized for the Flint water crisis and cited failures at all levels of government, including the city and federal agencies.

He has criticized the state DEQ for failing to ensure corrosion controls were added to Flint River water, a decision that allowed lead to leach from aging pipes into homes. Snyder said this week there are also “challenges” in the state health department, which disputed independent blood-lead testing it later confirmed.

Records show officials in both departments were slow to respond to an initial Legionnaires’ spike noticed in Genesee County. None of the released emails involved Davis.

Epidemiologist Susan Bohm, in an October 2014 email, told other Health and Human Services officials that DEQ water division chief Liane Shekter Smith sought to steer the health department away from linking the outbreak to Flint water.

Snyder has said he did not learn about the Legionnaires’ outbreak until January 2016, when he informed the public at a press conference.

Davis, who worked for the state through the end of last April, said it’s hard to say if he should have been alerted to the initial Legionella concerns first raised in late 2014 and early 2015.

“There was clearly an investigation in process, and while investigations are ongoing, it’s not necessarily the case that the chief medical executive is brought in,” he said. “Chief medical executives are brought in if there are concerns at the end of an investigation, after all the data have been collected.”

Davis continued working for UM while serving the state, which split his salary with the university. His successor, Dr. Eden Wells, had a similar arrangement until last week, when the state made her a full-time employee.

The state’s Public Health Code requires the chief medical executive to be a full-time employee, but Snyder had modified the position in 2011.

“I was always available (to the state) and was in Lansing, in person, for 50 percent of my time,” Davis said.