Montgomery County’s health officer role will be split into two positions—chief public health officer and a new chief of public health services—under a bill unanimously approved Tuesday by the County Council and supported by County Executive Marc Elrich.
The creation of a second position is indicative of the broad responsibilities the county has in public health—which have become more visible since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—and in the administration of health services to many communities within the county, officials say.
The move “just reflects the reality on the ground,” as the public health needs of the county increase due to needs related to COVID-19 and existing health inequities, said County Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large), who sponsored the legislation on behalf of Elrich.
James Bridgers, given that he is confirmed by the County Council, will earn $196,000 annually in his new position. Kisha Davis, the county’s health officer, was hired at an annual salary of $200,000, and began in December.
Travis Gayles, the county’s former health officer, was paid an annual salary of $229,000 when he resigned, and county officials said they were offering up to $250,000 for the health officer position after that point.
Initially, Elrich’s office and council members wanted to remove the requirement that either the county’s health officer, or that person’s deputy, be a licensed physician. That was because county officials were initially having difficulty filling the health officer position.
But county officials have since decided to split the health officer into two broader positions.
As drafted, the county’s chief public health officer will work on high-level public health goals across county divisions, Montgomery County Public Schools, and partner nonprofits and organizations that work with county government, Bethesda Beat previously reported.
The division chief of public health services will focus on operations of Montgomery Cares (providers that provide health services to uninsured adults countywide), school health services, refugee health clinics, HIV and sexually transmitted disease clinics, and various other programs.
The council unanimously approved two amendments on Tuesday—one stated that the chief of public health services is also a deputy health officer. The other, introduced by Council Vice President Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), stated that the health officer, under the current structure, would still need to be a licensed physician: a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.).
Friedson said during Tuesday’s meeting that although county officials were initially looking at removing the requirement, splitting the health officer job into two positions changed the scope of the issue. That meant that it should remain in place in county and state law, he said.
Earl Stoddard, an assistant chief administrative officer for the county, agreed. He said during Tuesday’s meeting that it is officials’ preference that someone leading several county health agencies be a licensed physician, and that they are hopeful there aren’t issues in the future with trying to hire a health officer.
James Bridgers, who is not a physician but has a master’s degree in health education and Ph.D. in family science, served as the county’s acting health officer after Travis Gayles resigned in September 2021. Multiple council members and officials within Elrich’s administration said that Bridgers was effectively doing at least two jobs—that of acting health officer, and overseeing public health services, even though the latter position hadn’t been created before Tuesday.
Bridgers was interviewed by council members on Tuesday for the chief of public health services position. Elrich has recommended for the appointment at a salary of $196,000, according to council staff documents.