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Cincinnati's new health commissioner says hello. Longtime department workers say goodbye

Cincinnati Enquirer logo Cincinnati Enquirer 12/11/2018 Anne Saker
a person posing for the camera© Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

Melba Moore came to town in August to lead the Cincinnati Health Department and shoulder a mountain of challenges, including the primary health care for one of six city residents, the opioid epidemic and a stubbornly high infant mortality rate.

But her first major test as the city’s 42nd health commissioner is taking control of the Cincinnati Health Department.

a person posing for the camera: New Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore poses in the Enquirer Studio in Downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.© Sam Greene New Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore poses in the Enquirer Studio in Downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.

Moore’s arrival has triggered the exits of at least five key department leaders, many of whom had lobbied hard against her hiring earlier this year. Among the officials on the way out is Dr. Marilyn Crumpton, retiring from the city after serving as interim health commissioner.

Moore, 62, says the staff unrest puzzles her. The St. Louis native brings 15 years of experience running the Missouri city’s health department, and she acknowledges that she’s demanding of managers. As she settles into her Downtown apartment and shakes hands every day meeting dozens of Cincinnati residents, she says she is confident the turmoil will subside and the department will gear up.

“Coming into this community, I’m an outsider, and the first thing I said when I met with my team was that people need to love on people,” she said.

a woman sitting at a table: Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore takes her seat on a panel during a town hall meeting at South Avondale Elementary School in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.© Sam Greene/The Enquirer Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore takes her seat on a panel during a town hall meeting at South Avondale Elementary School in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.

'Out of the woods'

Founded in 1826, the Cincinnati Health Department reaches into almost every corner of the city. Employees run nine health centers and five dental centers, serving 50,000 people. They ensure outdoor events such as Oktoberfest or Opening Day are safe and sanitary. They watch for public-health threats such as mosquito-borne illnesses. They study trends and provide guidance to city leaders on health matters.

The department employs 470 people and runs on about $50 million a year, half from city tax dollars and half from state and federal grants.

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Overseeing the department is the Board of Health, nine citizens appointed by the mayor who meet monthly to monitor operations. The board hires the health commissioner, and the April vote for Moore was unanimous. Her salary is $180,000 a year. She is the first African-American woman to hold the job.

a group of people in a room: Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore listens to a panelist during a town hall meeting at South Avondale Elementary School in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.© Sam Greene/The Enquirer Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore listens to a panelist during a town hall meeting at South Avondale Elementary School in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.

Dr. Phil Lichtenstein, board chairman and medical director at The Children’s Home of Cincinnati, said the board selected a strong, politically sharp leader to crack longstanding problems such as lead abatement in the city’s old housing stock.

“After three years of spinning our wheels with the politics, we’re going to be out of those woods pretty quickly,” he said. “Every member of the board who’s been through this is taking a deep breath and saying: Thank God. Now we’re ready to do some really big things.”

Learning the city

Moore comes to Cincinnati with a record of achievement in St. Louis. Former Mayor Francis Slay said Moore was instrumental in getting more children tested earlier for lead and in persuading landlords to see lead clean-up as a collaboration with the city.

What Moore does not have is experience running a health-delivery network, but Lichtenstein and others say she is learning quickly. In the week before she started as health commissioner, Moore paid quiet visits to several Health Department centers. That move impressed Kathy Schulte, treasurer of the labor union Cincinnati Organized and Dedicated Employees, which represents Health Department workers.  

“She ‘shopped’ them, just looked around, and I thought that was very interesting,” said Schulte. “She’s thinking outside the normal, looking for alternatives as to how we can partner to give the community better services. And that’s new.”

Moore also has adopted a first-grade class at Rockdale Academy and pledged she will be with the students “until they go to Harvard.” Rockdale Principal Belinda Tubbs-Wallace said she’s delighted. “She’ll be able to be a part of how we handle problems.”

Moore’s first months on the job have been a whirlwind, with days starting before 8 a.m. and often ending after an evening event, such as the Oct. 4 Black Men’s Health town hall in Avondale, sponsored by the Center for Closing the Health Gap. At that gathering, she nudged the audience about tobacco use.

Former mayor Dwight Tillery, the center’s president, said of Moore, “She’s a pretty savvy person, and I think she’s absolutely committed to the community, and so I think she’s going to do well. I just have this great feeling that she’s arrived at the right time.”

Riding the bumpy air

But Moore’s landing in Cincinnati came with already-bumpy air inside the Health Department, which has been without a permanent health commissioner since Noble Maseru retired in 2016. At first, the Board of Health aimed to hire Dr. O’dell Owens, the former Hamilton County coroner.

Some opponents, including Tillery, objected that the hiring process was not transparent. A short time later, Owens left the Health Department. The board elevated Crumpton, a longtime and well-liked caregiver, as interim commissioner to put a familiar hand on the push to finish the department’s application for accreditation, now required of all health departments in Ohio.

Late last year, the board opened a national search for a commissioner and winnowed the candidate list to two – but not including Crumpton. The other finalist dropped out, leaving Moore as the last candidate. The unhappiness among the department’s senior managers grew loud enough that in March, the city’s human resources director warned of “corrective action” if they didn’t pipe down.

The Board of Health hired Moore. Now, five senior managers have put in notice. Crumpton is retiring, as is Dr. Steven Englender, director of epidemiology, and Chief Financial Officer Bob Schlanz. Resigning are Nursing Director Pat Carlyn and Assistant Health Commissioner Joyce Tate. All five declined to speak to The Enquirer about their departures.

Moore said she is sad that longtimers are leaving, but she wants to move forward.

“My desire is to have open, honest communication and to be transparent with our board, with our community, and making them aware of what we do and how we do," she said. "This needle has to move. … The bottom line is: Many are called but few are chosen. I was selected, and I’m going to do the best that I can.”

ABOUT MELBA MOORE

Born: St. Louis

Education: bachelor's degree in psychology, Webster University; master's degree in health management, Lindenwood University; doctoral candidate in business administration, Northcentral University.

Work history: Director of health, city of St. Louis, 2015-2018; commissioner of health, 2001-2018; director of tobacco-use prevention, American Lung Association of Eastern Missouri, 1996-2000; coordinator of sickle-cell program for St. Louis, 1990-1996.

Membership: Delta Sigma Theta sorority

Pets: Yorkshire terrier named Maxwell, cat named Chloe

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati's new health commissioner says hello. Longtime department workers say goodbye

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