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Delegate says she understands departure of DHHR head in hot seat

The delegate who has taken a lead on questioning the performance of the agency that focuses on the health and well-being of West Virginians said she can’t blame the cabinet secretary for his abrupt retirement.

Delegate Amy Summers, who has been the House majority leader, said Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch was likely to remain under scrutiny as the face of the agency during the coming legislative session.

Instead, Crouch addressed a letter to Gov. Jim Justice on Monday, announcing his retirement at the end of the year.

“Secretary Crouch has suffered many personal allegations,” Summers, R-Taylor, said Tuesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “And I respect that he decided to retire and remove himself as a focus regarding the structure and function of DHHR.”

Summers said she has worked respectfully and productively with Crouch over his six years as a cabinet secretary.

But she acknowledged that he had become a lightning rod as people assessed the agency’s performance.

“When you’re at the top of an organization, you bear the brunt of everything beneath it,” she said. “So, deserved or not, that is where allegations tend to go.”

Crouch alluded to that criticism in his resignation letter, saying it had affected the agency.

“As everyone knows, the department has been under constant scrutiny over this past year,” Crouch wrote in his letter. “Although most of those allegations were aimed at me, it is 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 loyalty.”

The governor said he will be receiving guidance about the $7.5 billion agency from Dr. Jeff Coben, who is dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University, along with Dr. Clay Marsh, the executive dean for health sciences at WVU, and James Hoyer, the state’s retired adjutant general.

Legislative scrutiny of the agency is likely to continue, even with Crouch exiting.

Consultants in a recent assessment of the agency noted that West Virginia ranks lowest for life expectancy, highest for rate of drug-related deaths, highest for percentage of minors in foster care, second highest for food insecurity and 35th for access to care.

Separately, the civil rights office for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified the state of an investigation over whether DHHR is “engaging in unlawful discrimination based on disability” at state-run facilities.

And legislators have continued to express concern over youths at risk because of the low number of child protective services workers.

Senate President Craig Blair, in reacting to Crouch’s departure, expressed optimism that the agency’s performance could improve.

“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. 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,” said Blair, R-Berkeley.

Summers is preparing to make the agency her focus during the upcoming legislative session.

One big issue is the agency’s $7.5 billion budget of state and federal dollars, she said. And yet another is the agency’s bureaucratic framework.

“It is so massive and intertwined, it obstructs transparency for us — the Legislature, which has the power of the purse — to be able to make sure that monies are going to the right places and the right programs,” she said. “We have no way to evaluate, the way that’s set up now.”

She said discussions about how to best manage DHHR will continue.

“We’re just wanting to be respectful of the governor’s way that he’s looking at this and then look at the Legislature’s way and try to find a way to work together and do what’s best for the people of West Virginia,” Summers said.