Meet new man in charge of Health and Human Services in Michigan

Dr. Frank McGeorge sits down with new director

DETROIT – Measles, Flint's water and the opioid crisis: These are just some of the critical health threats our state has recently faced.

I recently went to Lansing to talk to Robert Gordon, the new director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss these hot topics and where he wants to see the department move under his direction.

"We talk about measles every day.  I get a report every day, often more than once a day, about the latest numbers and the latest on what we're seeing," said Gordon.

Keeping on top of the latest outbreaks is just one of of the things Gordon is responsible for as the the new director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services -- a department that has faced severe criticism after its former director, Nick Lyon, was charged with involuntary manslaughter in relation to a Legionella outbreak in Flint.

I asked Gordon about his thoughts on taking on the mantle of what is obviously a very challenging position.

"You know my first day on the job here, I talked about the principles that I thought we should honor, and they were principles that I developed talking with public health officials, experts, former mentors of mine and the principles that I talked about were always listening to scientists, acting on data, treating people with dignity, respect, and honesty, telling it like it is, making sure we're careful with taxpayer dollars, and putting the interest of the public ahead of our own interests," said Gordon.

The ongoing situation in Flint is also a priority.

"I visited Flint in my first week, and I was there for the announcement of the Flint Registry, and I think that as as tragic and upsetting the history in Flint is, that the actions today in Flint are really encouraging," said Gordon. "Our job moving forward is to do everything we can to support that forward progress, and we've provided support in past years and we continue, too."

I asked him if any priority jumped out in terms of Michigan's health.

"One of the central challenges that we have to tackle of course is opiates and the opioid crisis, and I think we have real opportunities with opioids, with obesity, and one thing that's quite encouraging in these domains is that we can make a difference," said Gordon.

He's also focused on some very specific priorities in his department.

"I will name three. I could name 10, but I'll just name three big ones," said Gordon. "The first is that we deliver services as effectively as possible and that we meet people where they are. Second big priority is in our children's services. We've got 14,000 children in foster care in Michigan.  We have enormous responsibility to those kids. The third thing I would say is with changes to the Healthy Michigan plan coming, you know Medicaid expansion was a bipartisan effort here in Michigan, great credit to Republicans and Democrats, 680,000 people who have health insurance because of that."

Gordon isn't a physician, he's actually an attorney with a really interesting background.  Directing the largest department in Michigan's government with over 14,000 employees requires a unique skill set.

"We need to listen carefully, and we need empathy, deep empathy, but that also needs to be informed by data," said Gordon.

The Human Services side of his department expands the scope into areas like foster care, adult and child protective services, safety net public assistance benefits, and even the administration of child support. 
"I spent a lot of time early in my career working in communities," said Gordon. "My first job out or law school was representing kids in foster care."

Early experiences like that -- and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shaped his future.

"She is an amazing justice and she was a wonderful boss," said Gordon.  "She's that kind of engaged leader, but she's also a deeply caring person who has a birthday cake and sings 'Happy Birthday' for every one of her clerks every year."

He also recalled her toughness and attention to detail.

"She has the strongest will of anyone I have ever met and that was true even when I worked for her 20 years ago," said Gordon.  "I can remember she was ill, she was in the hospital.  Even from the hospital, she was a force.  She left me a voicemail, and I came into work one morning at 7, and it was a voicemail that had been left hours earlier and it had minutes of detailed feedback on something I had written basically telling me what to do almost paragraph by paragraph, and I did exactly as told, and the document was better for it."

Gordon has also worked in the public policy sector.

"One of my first jobs was in the Clinton years.  I helped set up the Americore Program,  the National Service Program," said Gordon. "And I worked in the Obama administration, and I did a lot around home visiting programs and teen pregnancy prevention programs and early childhood education, and just was very passionate about doing all that I could to bring resources to programs that work for kids."

He said when he was tapped for this position, he couldn't say no.

"When I met with Governor Whitmore and had the opportunity to come here, I thought it was truly an opportunity of a lifetime to have impact on a scale and in communities like I have never had before, so I'm thrilled thrilled to be here."

Watch the report from Local 4 News at 5 below:

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