DC Council member voices concerns over hiring of former Philadelphia health commissioner

DC Health recently tapped a former Philadelphia health commissioner to lead its Community Health Administration, but leaders and members of the community are expressing their concerns about several controversies in the pick’s recent past.

As health commissioner of Philadelphia, Dr. Thomas Farley in 2017 ordered the cremation of the remains of Black people killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing without telling their families. While the remains were not entirely destroyed, Farley stepped down from his role as health commissioner in the wake of that scandal, saying he took full responsibility for his actions, which he categorized as an error in judgement.

Eleven people were killed in that bombing, including five children, when police ended a standoff with the Black liberation group MOVE in West Philadelphia by dropping explosives on the roof of the rowhouse that held their headquarters. An ensuing fire destroyed dozens of homes in the predominantly-Black neighborhood.

Farley apologized for the way his office handled the attempted disposal of the remains, and said he acted on his own initiative to dispose of the them.

Just a few months before, Philadelphia’s health department suffered another scandal under Farley’s leadership, when the city decided to partner with Philly Fighting COVID — a group run by college students with no formal medical expertise — to handle the city’s coronavirus testing and vaccinations. The 22-year-old CEO of the group later admitted running the organization as a for-profit enterprise and pocketing doses of the vaccine.

The Washington Post first reported DC Health’s decision to hire Farley as deputy director for the Community Health Administration.

D.C. Council member Vincent Gray wrote to DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt asking that she reconsider Farley’s appointment given his history.

“I am concerned about what appears to be a lack of racial sensitivity and how that would reflect as the lead in the District’s outreach to the community, particularly for African Americans who are medically underserved and experience a greater rate of co-morbidities,” Gray wrote. “I am also concerned with the work environment he created in Philadelphia that left him uninformed of serious issues with the city’s testing and vaccine program, which should have been his highest priority given the historical nature of this public health threat.”

Gray said a report from Philadelphia’s Office of the Inspector General found Farley was aware of structural issues with the organization — such as flaws in their testing process, issues with community relations, missing demographical data and high staff turnover — but ultimately absolved him of neglect or wrongdoing. Still, Gray said he has questions for Farley.

“While the report absolves Dr. Farley … it also describes him as ‘disconnected and uninformed’ and notes he expressed concerns about PFC and urged caution,” Gray said. “It is unclear how both findings can be true.”

Gray said he recognized that Dr. Nesbitt did not have to inform the council about DC Health’s decision to hire Farley, but asked that she address the members of the council and the community to explain why she believes he will make a strong asset for the health agency despite his recent history.

“Improving community health requires trust and we need to know that the person making public health policy has the ability, judgment, and cultural sensitivity for our community,” Gray said. “I am not certain Dr. Farley can meet all these requirements, but I am available to meet with both of you to discuss these matters, and I encourage you to also schedule meetings with my colleagues on the Committee on Health.”

Nesbitt defended hiring Farley in a Tuesday news briefing with Mayor Muriel Bowser. She said she believed his experience leading major health departments would prove invaluable as the city navigates the pandemic.

“I’m excited to have Dr. Farley join our team here at DC Health as one of our senior deputy directors,” Nesbitt said. “… I look forward to being able to have him get to know many of the residents in the District of Columbia and many of them getting to know him as well.”

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Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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