How newly appointed Commissioner Bettigole plans to turn the Philly Health Department around

Bettigole has served as interim commissioner of the Department of Public Health since May, when Dr. Thomas Farley resigned at the request of the mayor.

Dr. Cheryl Bettigole speaks from a podium while wearing a face mask

Philadelphia's newly-appointed Health Commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole is shown speaking at a press conference in June, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After a six-month stretch in which Philadelphia had no permanent health commissioner, Mayor Jim Kenney has appointed Dr. Cheryl Bettigole to the role. Bettigole has been serving as the interim commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health since May, when former department head Dr. Thomas Farley resigned at the request of the mayor. 

“Throughout her entire career, Dr. Bettigole has demonstrated a deep commitment to prioritizing equity, access, and prevention in public health,” Kenney said in a statement Thursday. “I’m confident that with her experience, vision, and steadfast leadership, we’ve found the best person to lead the Health Department as we work urgently on multiple fronts to ensure the health and well-being of all residents.”

Bettigole’s career before working at the Health Department had long focused on racial equity in health care. In an interview Thursday, she said that if the coronavirus pandemic has taught her anything, it’s that equity must be at the center of each of her efforts as health commissioner.

“Unless we have a very, very intentional focus on equity before all else, the general forces of structural racism are such that the whole system pushes away from equity,” she said. “It’s not that we didn’t understand how powerful those forces were, because we work in public health and you come up against that all the time. But the scope of that, and how much ingenuity and planning and sheer resources that takes, is probably the greatest thing we learned from the pandemic.”

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The priorities Bettigole has outlined for her new position keep racial equity at the center.

She plans to hire the city’s first chief racial equity officer and create a health equity plan for the Health Department.

Bettigole plans to increase access to primary care because, she said, it was clear how much easier it was during the pandemic for people to access health care when they had doctors they trusted.

She hopes to rewrite several of the city’s emergency planning documents — those for mass death events, another pandemic, or a toxin release, for example — using an equity lens.

She wants to build on the city’s work to prevent gun violence, which disproportionately affects young Black residents.

And, she said, when the investigation into Farley’s handling of the MOVE victims’ remains is released, she plans to incorporate the findings into the operations of the Medical Examiner’s Office. In the meantime, she said, her department is working to find a new chief medical officer.

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Bettigole was considered one of several leading candidates for the appointment, which will last through the remainder of Kenney’s term. The other publicly known contender for the post was Dr. Ala Stanford of the Black Doctors Consortium. Stanford was pressed to apply for the job by Philadelphia City Councilmember Cindy Bass, had the support of many public health advocates in the city, and was actively pursuing the position.

Last week, however, Stanford dropped out of contention, citing potential conflicts of interest for the new health center opened in her name in the Swampoodle neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity, or ASHE, will offer primary care to adults and children, as well as blood work and immunizations, all on a sliding scale. Stanford said she wanted to be able to freely pursue state and federal funds to support the clinic through the city Health Department, and worried she wouldn’t be able to do so as its commissioner.

Until her appointment as interim commissioner, Bettigole was director of the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention for the Health Department. In that role, which she had held since 2015, Bettigole worked on the regulation of tobacco products and the establishment of a new injury prevention program focused on the prevention of gun violence, among other efforts.

She is a board-certified family physician with a doctor of medicine degree from Thomas Jefferson University. She also holds a master’s of public health from Johns Hopkins University.

Before working at the Health Department, Bettigole saw patients at a Federally Qualified Health Center serving immigrants in southern New Jersey, and as a doctor and clinical director at the city’s health centers she treated patients for over a decade.

Bettigole takes the helm of a department that has weathered a rocky pandemic. Farley resigned in May after admitting that he had directed the remains of several victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing to be destroyed. In January, the city suffered national embarrassment after appointing a startup group with no health care experience to be the face of its COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign, leading to the resignation of longtime Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Caroline Johnson.

But since then, under Bettigole’s leadership, Philadelphia says it has boosted vaccination rates to among the highest of any big city in the country. However, New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston all have a higher proportion of residents over age 12 fully vaccinated than Philadelphia. Philly does have the highest vaccination rates among Black residents of any city where more than a quarter of residents are Black.

As for vaccinating the remaining 35% of Philadelphians over 12, which includes large percentages of city workers, Bettigole said the department is constantly working on new strategies to reach them but hasn’t yet come up with a new approach. She said she was committed to preventing COVID-19 from becoming a disease that affects only the poorest and most vulnerable residents.

“We’re not going to settle,” she said. “We’re not going to say we reached 75% or 80%, we’re going to stop here.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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