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Gov. Justice: DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch to retire at year’s end; WVU’s Jeff Coben named as interim

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice announced on Monday morning that Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch will retire effective Dec. 31.

Justice made the virtual announcement from his Capitol office, flanked by COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh, Joint Interagency Task Force Director Gen. James Hoyer and interim DHHR Secretary Jeff Coben, who is WVU’s associate vice president for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Public Health.

Crouch was not present, but Justice said he will operate in an advisory role in the interim.

Justice praised Crouch for agreeing to come out of retirement seven years ago to take on a “tough and thankless job” heading DHHR — an organization in need of improvement for decades — and steering it through the pandemic. “We should absolutely all be very thankful and appreciative of the job that he’s done.”

Justice said he’d hoped Crouch would stay on board through the release of the McChrystal report, which recommends a reorganization of DHHR but not the split the Legislature has favored.

Justice said he wants to move forward with that report’s recommendations “fast and efficiently. … I want us to have the greatest results at the end of the day as we possibly can have.”

With that in mind he turned the discussion to the three men flanking him. “Don’t go to the battle with a pea shooter, go to the battle with a bazooka,” he said, noting the men next to him are his.

He said he called on Marsh and Hoyer to serve as advisors as they look for a permanent DHHR secretary, and hopes they will stay on as advisors through the remainder of his term as governor. Their advisory role will also include implementing the McChrystal report recommendations for restructuring DHHR.

Marsh said, “We are deeply committed as a team to help the governor in every way.” He called Coben an “outstanding servant and amazingly smart.”

Marsh and Hoyer both thanked Crouch for his service and praised DHHR staff. Hoyer said, “Clay and I will do our best to provide the best support and advice we can.”

Coben said he’s spent about 12 years working with DHHR and its staff. “I don’t think you can find more dedicated public servants. … I’m excited to have the opportunity to help with this transition and very much look forward to working with all of those inside DHHR and those throughout our community and throughout the great state to address the many health issues we face as a state head-on and as quickly as possible.”

DHHR has been under close legislative scrutiny. Last session the Legislature passed a bill to split DHHR into two agencies, which Justice vetoed in favor of hiring a consulting group to do a top-to-bottom study of the organization, which led to the McChrystal report.

The report said, “To improve West Virginia’s health and human services outcomes, the status quo is not an option; DHHR requires bold organizational change. Successfully executing an organizational change of this scope requires significant investment in change management. However, creating two separate departments is not the change required, as doing so would divert time, funding, and leadership’s focus away from serving West Virginians. Rather than addressing the root causes of DHHR’s challenges, a split would exacerbate them by shifting the focus of central office teams and bureau leaders away from improving their support to teams in the field and toward the administrative requirements of the split.”

The report said DHHR needs an executive leadership team to guide the strategic direction of the department.

Crouch’s comments

Crouch acknowledged DHHR’s troubles in his resignation letter to Justice. “As everyone knows, the department has been under constant scrutiny over this past year. Although most of the allegations were aimed at me, it’s the department that has suffered. DHHR staff have become collateral damage. And that is wrong. The staff of DHHR are the most dedicated and smartest group of people that I have ever worked with, and I thank them for their hard work and their loyalty.”

Defending the agency, Crouch said, “the perception that everything is broken is wrong. We have done and continue to do amazing work for the people of West Virginia. Virtually all our problems are workforce problems. We have staff shortages in all bureaus and areas of DHHR, from attorneys and nurses to food service staff in our facilities. Salaries are inadequate, and applicants for health professionals and for non-heath care positions are in short supply.”

Despite a series of raises, he said, “We have a workforce crisis in WV that must be fixed.”

He ended on a positive note. “It has been the highest honor of my career to be a member of your cabinet and to lead the extraordinary people who make up DHHR. You have heard me say that it’s easy to be a state employee, but it’s hard to be a public servant. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve, for there truly is no greater honor.”

Legislative reaction

Many legislators were skeptical or even dismissive of the McChrystal report, saying it suggests nothing more than a reshuffling.

Senate President Craig Blair issued a statement following the announcement.

“There’s no question about it: DHHR is not in a good place, and it’s going to take a lot of work to make things right,” he said. “We believe that it’s going to take statutory changes to make some of these major overhauls, but we hope this change in leadership brings a change to its management culture. We look forward to working with Interim DHHR Secretary Dr. Jeffrey Coben as we move forward with advancing significant changes to one of our state’s most critical departments. We wish Secretary Crouch well in his retirement.”

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp