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This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. Sept. 29, 2022, to include more information about the new leadership structure.

A finalist for the vacant post of Montgomery County public health officer has undergone an initial interview with the state, and an additional interview with Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader is expected in the coming weeks, senior county officials said Thursday.

During a joint meeting of the County Council’s health and human services and government operations and fiscal policy committees, Raymond Crowel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, told council members the state needs to conduct a background check of the candidate, which takes about a week.

When that is completed, Schrader will interview the prospective candidate, Crowel said. Previously, Crowel had said he hoped to fill the position by the end of October.

After the state approves the county’s pick, County Executive Marc Elrich’s office will present the candidate, where they then vote to approve that person. 

Three finalists have gone through the interview process since Travis Gayles resigned as health officer last September. All eventually declined to further pursue the opening, with officials stating that the current political climate and logistical reasons such relocating have been factors in the candidates’ decisions. 

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James Bridgers, who served as deputy health officer under Gayles, has been the acting health officer since Gayles resigned. Council President Gabe Albornoz, who also serves as chair of the council’s health and human services committee, asked Crowel how confident he was that the current finalist would accept the job if approved by the state.

Crowel said the candidate feels “categorically different” than prior finalists for the position and noted that the person has lived and worked in Montgomery County in the past. Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard later added that the candidate has worked with Montgomery County Public Schools officials. 

“I don’t see any caution flags on the horizon to this point,” Crowel said.

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County officials looking at changes to health officer requirements, leadership structure

In May, Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno told the council that it might be worth looking into changing the hiring requirements under county and state law in order to offer flexibility to future health officer candidates.

State and county laws currently require that either the county health officer or the deputy officer must be a licensed physician. That means that the person must hold a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Bridgers has neither.

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On Thursday, Madaleno, Stoddard and Crowel proposed changing the physician requirement, and another idea to change the leadership with the Department of Health and Human Services — with a health officer and a division chief of public health services as separate positions.

Broadly speaking, the change would allow the health officer to focus on high-level public health goals across county divisions, Montgomery County Public Schools, and partner nonprofits and organizations that work with county government, officials said. 

Stoddard wrote in a text message that the division chief of public health services would be at the same level as four other division chiefs within DHHS. Those divisions are: Children, Youth and Family Services; Aging and Disability Services; Behavioral Health and Crisis Services; and Services to End and Prevent Homelessness.

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In the new system, the county’s public health officer would serve directly under Crowel, the director of DHHS, but not be the direct supervisor to the chief of public health services, Stoddard wrote. The deputy health officer position would remain, he added.

If the change were made, Madaleno said county officials would then nominate Bridgers to be the chief of public health services. If confirmed by the council, Bridgers would focus on operations of Montgomery Cares (providers that provide health services to uninsured adults countywide), school health services, refugee health clinics, HIV and sexually transmitted disease clinics, and various other programs.

Stoddard said Thursday the change would allow the public health officer to think more broadly about public health issues affecting the county and also how different divisions and partners respond to various needs in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Council Member Nancy Navarro, chair of the government operations and fiscal policy committee, asked if the council would have time to enact all the required changes within county code for the health officer position, and broader leadership structure, before a new council takes over in December. 

Stoddard replied the timeline should be doable.