New Philadelphia health chief: Can Mt. Airy mom lead department out of crisis?

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There’s a brand new face on the helm of the town well being division.

Cheryl Bettigole took over as appearing Philadelphia well being commissioner after the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, former Commissioner Tom Farley. After 5 years within the place, Farley stepped down in mid-Could on request of the mayor after admitting he’d mishandled stays of MOVE bombing victims.

It’s unclear how lengthy Bettigole will keep within the function, as a nationwide search is underway for a everlasting substitute. However the place has arguably by no means mattered extra.

Her division is about to be deeply scrutinized, as the town launches an investigation into Medical Examiner’s Workplace insurance policies round stays. It’s nonetheless reverberating from fallout of the investigation into the Philly Preventing COVID debacle, which led to the ouster of the deputy commissioner who may’ve stepped up in Bettigole’s place. And because the mass vaccination effort continues, public well being stays on the forefront of on a regular basis dialog.

The prominence doesn’t appear to faze the 55-year-old Mt. Ethereal mom of three.

“For individuals who select to work in metropolis authorities, the stuff you need to get completed will take time and lots of work,” Bettigole mentioned in an interview.

At her first main press convention final week, she indicated she won’t wait to begin fixing issues. “I’ve had conversations with management of the Medical Examiner’s Workplace,” Bettigole mentioned, including that she didn’t intend to intervene with any investigation. “That’s completely different from insurance policies and procedures and the place we have to enhance. That’s the place I see my function.”

Bettigole has spent most of her profession in public well being. After a long time at metropolis well being clinics and federally certified well being facilities, she joined the town well being division in 2015 as director of Philly’s Division of Persistent Illness and Damage Prevention.

A professor at Thomas Jefferson College, the place Bettigole earned her medical diploma, described her as having a quiet confidence. A former colleague recalled her flexibility, and a focus to her under-resourced sufferers.

“Empathetic is a extremely good phrase for her. It flows naturally in her blood,” mentioned Dr. Azizeh Salloum, who labored together with her on the New Jersey’s Full Care Well being Community.

Bettigole just isn’t with out critics. Most well being division staff declined to talk to a reporter, however one former staffer cited a reluctance to interrupt from her former boss or tackle danger.

“I’ve some trepidation round how the town and the well being division will bounce again from this chance,” mentioned Xavier Lofton, the town’s former well being justice fellow, a paid place inside the Division of Public Well being. “I hope, however I’m not hopeful, for substantive change.”

For her half, Bettigole touted first-hand expertise with uninsured Philadelphians, and a ardour for offering care to individuals who don’t converse English as a local language.

“The factor about drugs and well being, it’s one of many few locations the place individuals who can leverage energy to make change meet up with individuals who want change,” Bettigole mentioned.

Rising up in 1970s Buffalo, New York, Bettigole mentioned she was continuously observing her father, who labored as a physician on the county hospital.

When she was an undergrad on the College at Buffalo, Bettigole studied anthropology. As a pupil employee, she usually overheard the secretary of the division lamenting about getting her six youngsters to a physician’s workplace once they have been sick.

That’s when she determined to pursue drugs. Bettigole moved to Philly to be together with her husband in 1993, and graduated with a medical diploma from Jefferson in 1996.  After her residency, she labored at two of Philly’s well being facilities — one at third and Girard, one other within the Northeast.

One reminiscence from her time there stands proud. An uninsured affected person was despatched over from an emergency room for treatment. Usually the ER would supply it straight, however for the reason that affected person didn’t have insurance coverage, he needed to go to a metropolis well being heart to have the ability to afford it.

Whereas the affected person was ready to choose up the medication, he fainted within the car parking zone.

“It leaves you with lots of bitterness. It’s simply visceral,” Bettigole mentioned. “Whenever you’re truly crouched on the sidewalk subsequent to somebody who’s bleeding as a result of the system doesn’t work, you possibly can’t actually let go of that.”

James Plumb teaches household and group drugs at Jefferson, and Bettigole was certainly one of his college students in med college. He remembers her greatest for her work on the metropolis well being facilities — like when she secured everlasting funding to rent 5 language interpreters. The trouble, Bettigole mentioned, resulted in a doubling of the variety of sufferers with restricted English proficiency who sought medical care there.

“She was actually a pioneer, determining how you can tackle disparities in immigrant and refugee populations within the Northeast,” Plumb mentioned. “We at all times would chat about how we would be capable to replicate her work.”

After a couple of years, Bettigole moved on to run the federally certified well being heart Full Care Well being Community in New Jersey.

That’s the place she employed former colleague Salloum, who remembers making use of for the place as a household drugs supplier in 2013. Salloum mentioned that due to points together with her new child, she confirmed as much as the interview an hour and 45 minutes late, sweaty and with breast milk on her shirt. She nonetheless acquired the job, plus was provided a versatile schedule so she may take care of her little one.

“It was like this feminine empowerment I wanted in my life,” Salloum mentioned. “Like, I may very well be a working mother. She didn’t query me or make me really feel dangerous about my wants.”

Bettigole returned to metropolis authorities in 2015, taking on as director of Philly’s Division of Persistent Illness and Damage Prevention, also called Get Wholesome Philly.

Of her work there over the previous six years, Bettigole mentioned she’s most happy with tightening rules for tobacco retailers — which she says contributed to a 20% lower in density of outlets that promote tobacco merchandise. “Smoking remains to be the primary killer, however nobody talks about it anymore,” Bettigole mentioned, including that Philly nonetheless handed guidelines prohibiting tobacco gross sales subsequent to colleges.

Her transfer to appearing well being commissioner a pair weeks in the past got here with a pay enhance. In Bettigole’s earlier place, her wage was simply above $150,000, in keeping with public data from 2020. She now makes $175,000, per a division spokesperson — greater than Farley’s listed wage of $166,250 final yr.

Lofton, the previous Philly well being justice fellow, isn’t thrilled in regards to the new division head. When he learn the information that his outdated boss had been ousted, and why, he was shocked. When he learn additional and noticed Bettigole could be the substitute, he was rattled.

“As soon as I learn her identify, that she was the interim, I form of simply needed to like, take a beat,” Lofton mentioned, including that he was “actually disillusioned.”

It’s unclear whether or not different present or former staff agree with Lofton, as a result of none would converse to Billy Penn for this story. Some indicated the Division of Public Well being had circulated a memo directing employees to keep away from talking with the press.

Lofton remembered a time Get Wholesome Philly organized a three-day range coaching, and he mentioned Bettigole solely made it to one of many days. Generally, he noticed her appearing as a conduit for Farley’s cautious, bureaucratic type. “There have been instances I’d supply a query of intent or rationale on behalf of our division, and it appeared as if [Bettigole] would at all times defer to Dr. Farley,” he mentioned.

Bettigole mentioned she doesn’t perceive Lofton’s evaluation.

“That’s the primary time I’ve ever been accused of not eager to push issues ahead,” she mentioned. “I completely have essential work that I wish to do whereas I’m on this place. … All of us have faults. I don’t assume that’s truly certainly one of mine.”

It stays to be seen how lengthy Bettigole will occupy the workplace. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has not indicated whether or not she’s being thought-about for the everlasting place.

Does she even need the job? “Actually I’ve solely been doing this for a couple of days,” Bettigole mentioned. “I’ve barely slept. That query has not entered my head.”

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