New director triggers a brain drain at SFDPH

Pub date July 23, 2013

The San Francisco Department of Public Health has seen an exodus of top officials over the 18 months since Barbara Garcia took the reins from longtime chief Mitch Katz, the most recent being Environmental Health Director Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, who was placed on administrative leave last month pending an investigation into unspecified concerns.

Bhatia has been a hero to many progressive San Franciscans and public health professionals for his innovative work supporting expanded worker protections, regulation of cannabis dispensaries and restaurants, environmental justice initiatives, and other work that has landed him in the pages of the Guardian many, many times.

“The poorest Americans are about two times as likely to die. People in low-wage jobs have less access to health care … food, shelter, clothing, and transit,” Bhatia testified during the 2002 Board of Supervisors hearing that led to the creation of a city minimum wage.

Neither Bhatia nor the department would comment on his leave, although sources tell us that he has not been informed of the charges against him (which an item in the Chronicle last month suggested was a possible conflict of interest issue relating to his regulation of restaurants) and that Garcia has clashed with many top officials in the department since taking over.

Among those who have left the department are Dr. Susan Fernyak, Director of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control; Dr. Masae Kawamura, Director of TB Control; Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of HIV Prevention; Elizabeth Jacobi, Director of Human Resources; Tangerine Brigham, Director of Healthy San Francisco; Mark Trotz, Director of Housing and Urban Health; and Dr. Erica Pan, Director of Emergency Preparedness.

“SFDPH has a national and worldwide reputation for innovative solutions to traditional public health problems. As a citizen of this city, I’m concerned that the current leadership is fostering an environment that is driving out and stifling that innovation to the detriment of all of us. A number of staff people have told me they have been instructed not to stretch themselves to innovate, to do only what their job description says and no more,” said the source, who works for a nonprofit that partners with the department.

Asked to comment on the exodus and her role in it, Garcia issued the following statement in response to questions from the Guardian: “Three staff that reported to me directly were recruited and provided promotions in the Los Angeles Department of Health Services. I’m very proud of these staff who are now involved with Health Care Reform efforts for the Los Angeles area. Several other staff that reported to our Public Health Division left for positions that were closer to home and the majority of these departures were promotions. All staff left in good standing with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.”

Meanwhile, 93 “members of the public health, social and environmental justice, foundation and education communities” wrote a signed letter to Mayor Ed Lee on July 10 on behalf of Dr. Bhatia, highlighting his work and appealing for a just resolution to the situation.

“Many across the nation have been grappling with how to improve the social and environmental conditions that are the cause of poor health and health inequities. Under Dr. Bhatia’s leadership, the San Francisco Department of Public Health Environmental Health Section has found practical ways — using research, policy, regulation, and cross-sector collaboration — to produce measurable improvements to environmental and social conditions throughout San Francisco’s diverse communities,” they wrote.

While writing that they “have no knowledge or commentary on the details of the leave or investigations, they went on to note the initiative that Bhatia has shown in going beyond his prescribed duties to work with various San Francisco constituencies to support equitable solutions to this city’s problems: “He takes his responsibilities as a public servant seriously, working well beyond required hours, and he is committed to improving the life-chances of socially, economically, and politically marginalized communities.”