In a surprise move, Gov. Ned Lamont this morning announced that Connecticut Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford will serve as acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, effective immediately.
Gifford replaces Public Health Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell, who had served in various roles at the department from 1986 to 1994. She rejoined DPH in 2002, rising to commissioner in April 2019.
Lamont downplayed the significance of making the move in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re at a pivot point,” he told the Business Journal. “We’re getting close to (tentative reopening date) May 20, and we’ve handled to the peak of the COVID crisis well, I think.”
Asked if Coleman-Mitchell had resigned or been dismissed, the governor said: “That’s still being worked out.”
In an official statement, Lamont said: “I appreciate Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell’s willingness to join my administration and lead one of our most vital state agencies, which is responsible for overseeing so many critical public health needs.
“Her service over the last year has been a great deal of help,” the statement continued, “particularly in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has brought disruption to many throughout the world. I thank her for her advocacy on behalf of the health and safety of our residents, and for being a dedicated partner in service to the state of Connecticut.”
The appointment of Gifford as acting commissioner is reflective of how DPH and DSS “are so closely connected,” Lamont told the Business Journal. “Public Health oversees part of our nursing homes, and DSS oversees them as well.”
In addition, he said, DSS works with all not-for-profits, “so it makes some sense to have (Gifford) overseeing both sides.”
The tenure of Coleman-Mitchell, who was not available for comment, as DPH commissioner was a sometimes rocky one. Last year, the department published an assessment that found 2017-18 kindergarten immunization rates below 95%, the level recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Part of that disparity was due to Coleman-Mitchell’s reluctance to address nonmedical exemptions for those immunizations. After initially refusing to release 2018-19 data, she was ordered by Lamont to do so.
That report found that the statewide measles, mumps, and rubella rate for kindergartners was 96.1%, while the percentage of kindergarten students with a religious exemption remained unchanged, increasing by 25% compared with the previous year, from 2% to 2.5%. The percentage of kindergarten students with a medical exemption remained fairly constant, at 0.2% in 2018-19, compared with 0.3% during previous years.
In addition, Coleman-Mitchell’s deputy commissioner, Susan Roman, resigned on March 6 as the pandemic’s effects were coming into sharper focus. Ostensibly DPH’s main liaison with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Roman in her resignation letter maintained she was frequently discriminated against and was the victim of abusive behavior.
As for Gifford, prior to joining DSS last year she served as deputy director for the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington, D.C., where she oversaw the full scope of Medicaid functions at the federal agency.
From 2012 to 2015, she served as Medicaid director in the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and from 2005 to 2011 she was co-founder and project director of Rhode Island’s multipayer Medical Home demonstration, one of the nation’s first multipayer payment reform initiatives.
Gifford earned a B.S. in public health from UCLA; an M.D. from Cornell University Medical College in New York; and completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology and received an M.P.H. in epidemiology at UCLA. Over the course of her career, she has held faculty appointments at the UCLA and Brown Schools of Public Health.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required every state agency to even more closely align with each other and sync our operations to deliver a coordinated response for the people of Connecticut,” Gifford said. “I am determined to continue these efforts for the duration of our emergency response and beyond.”