michelle fiscus

Lee budget hearings get underway Monday

Gov. Bill Lee, second from left, holds a budget hearing with the Department of Economic and Community Development on Nov. 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig/Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is holding annual public budget hearings this week. Given the state’s massive budget surplus and influx of huge amounts of federal money, this year’s hearings will likely come without the charade of having departments to outline theoretical spending cuts (most of which didn’t come to pass, even in more meager times).

Lee has followed predecessor Bill Haslam’s style in hearings with department heads, mostly avoiding controversy or criticism. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, by contrast, would often home in on perceived shortcomings to pressure his Cabinet members to perform better – or be replaced. 

The first of this year’s set of hearings should give a good indication about how things are going to go: The Department of Health has been battered by controversy ever since the firing of vaccine chief Shelly Fiscus this summer. An AP records request found top agency officials were dismayed at her firing. Commissioner Lisa Piercey, meanwhile, was “really angry” that colleagues had written nice things about Fiscus in an email about her departure, according to the report. “It’s been fun around here,” chief medical officer Tim Jones wrote.

It would come as a big surprise if Lee touched on any of that this morning.

UPDATE: Here’s what Lee had to say to open proceedings with the Health Department:

It’s been a long difficult year and I commend you for the work that you’ve done. Much pressure, much scrutiny, much challenge, health issues for many Tennesseans, loss of life, loss of health. And for a department of public helath, there’s probably never in recent history been as great a challenge to deal with and navigate through, and I’m increadibly proud of what you and your team, fully across the board, has done.”

Here’s the full schedule:

Budget Hearing Schedule (all times listed in CT)

Monday, November 1

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Health
  • 10 a.m.-10:45 a.m. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Division of TennCare
  • 1:15 p.m.-2 p.m. Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
  • 2:15 p.m-3 p.m. Department of Human Services
  • 3:15-4 p.m. Department of Children’s Services
  • 4:15 p.m-4:45 p.m. Department of Military / Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Tuesday, November 2

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Education
  • 10 a.m-10:45 a.m. Tennessee Higher Education Commission
  • 10:50 a.m.-11:20 a.m. Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation
  • 11:30 a.m.-noon Department of Tourist Development
  • 1:30 p.m.-2 p.m. Department of Agriculture
  • 2:15 p.m.-3 p.m. Department of Labor and Workforce Development
  • 3:15 p.m.-4 p.m. Department of Transportation

Wednesday, November 3

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Economic and Community Development
  • 10 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Department of Commerce and Insurance
  • 10:45 a.m.-11:15 a.m. Department of Financial Institutions
  • 11:30 a.m.-noon. Department of Human Resources
  • 1:30 p.m.-2:15 p.m. Department of General Services
  • 2:30-3 p.m. Department of Revenue
  • 3:15-3:45 Department of Finance and Administration

Thursday, November 4

  • 9:00-9:45 Department of Environment and Conservation
  • 10:00-10:45 Department of Correction
  • 11:00-11:45 Department of Safety and Homeland Security
  • 1:30-2:00 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • 2:15-2:45 Department of Veterans Services

Read the Health Department memo about why it fired Tennessee’s chief vaccination official

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee made national headlines this week for firing the top vaccination official at the Department of Health . The state has has been mum about the reasons for Michelle Fiscus’ termination, but she has alleged being made a scapegoat for GOP lawmaker anger over a state policy urging teens to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Now the state is releasing a memo written by Tim Jones, the chief medical officer at the Health Department, to Commissioner Lisa Piercey claiming Fiscus didn’t work well with others and didn’t seek permission and guidance about the content of a letter “regarding her own interpretation” of state law regarding the authority of minors to get vaccines without their parents’ permission. Fiscus says the letter was drafted by an agency lawyer and “blessed” by Gov. Bill Lee’s office.

UPDATE: The Fiscus camp denies misdeeds, pointing to her glowing performance review as recently as last year.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

To: Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP, Commissioner

From: Tim Jones, MD

July 9, 2021

Re: Expiration of service of Michelle (Shelley) Fiscus, MD

Based on program management deficiencies and failure to follow appropriate processes and procedures, please accept this recommendation to expire the executive service of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Director, Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program (VPDIP), Tennessee Department of Health.

This recommendation is based on Dr. Fiscus’s failure to maintain good working relationships with members of her team, her lack of effective leadership, her lack of appropriate management, and unwillingness to consult with superiors and other internal stakeholders on VPDIP projects.

On multiple occasions during the 2020-2021 COVID response, Dr. Fiscus has failed to maintain satisfactory and harmonious relationships among her team. In February 2021, CEDEP leadership and TDH Human Resources received multiple complaints from program staff regarding her management style, treatment of employees, and poor program morale. Dr. Dunn met with five senior team members who expressed consistent complaints related to management of the program by Dr. Fiscus during the COVID response. He had several coaching sessions with Dr. Fiscus, with minimal improvement in the situation noted. Two of her most senior leaders have subsequently resigned.

On March 7, 2021, Dr. Dunn and I met with Dr. Fiscus and another departmental physician to mediate complaints against Dr. Fiscus of disrespectful treatment and ineffective management. The meeting terminated with a refusal of both parties to communicate constructively, and with a refusal by the other physician to work further on the VPDIP team. Dr. Fiscus was coached on professionalism and teamwork.

Dating back to December 2020, the vaccine planning team required intervention by CEDEP leadership to address inefficient use of team resources, including poor inter-program communication regarding vaccine distribution. Repeated failures by Dr. Fiscus to appropriately delegate to others resulted in repetitive, long, and inefficient meetings. These meetings took already busy colleagues away from other tasks.

Over the past three months Dr. Fiscus requested to give a new non-profit organization TDH funding to support VPDIP activities. This organization was founded and led by Dr. Fiscus, had no Executive Director or other employees, and had no other substantive source of funding. Providing funds to such an entity would be poor judgement and a substantial conflict of interest.

In June, 2021, Dr. Fiscus communicated directly with a state university regarding the department producing COVID-vaccine reports for the institution. She did not notify or consult with supervisors, and the situation only became evident when departmental legal counsel received formal documents directly from the university memorializing the arrangement. The requested reports were not produced by the department.

In May, 2021, Dr. Fiscus broadly shared a letter regarding her own interpretation of state and federal law with external partners with respect to vaccinations and other medical treatment of minors. The letter should have been reviewed by both leadership and departmental legal counsel. However, Dr. Fiscus did not share the letter nor otherwise include any of these parties in the drafting process prior to sending it out. This action resulted in confusion of both law and policy for private providers, parents, and legislators.

These examples clearly demonstrate that Dr. Fiscus’s performance in this role has led to strained relationships with internal and external stakeholders at multiple levels, and to an ineffective and non- cohesive workplace. Her leadership and management of her team does not foster the culture or environment expected at the Tennessee Department of Health.

Fired chief vaccine officer’s husband ran against erstwhile Lee ally Casada

House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) checks his phone in the House chamber in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state on Monday fired Tennessee’s top vaccination officer, The Tennessean’s Brett Kelman reports. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Health Department, said her termination letter gave no reason for her dismissal.

Fiscus told the paper she had become a scapegoat for conservative lawmakers’ anger over the department’s efforts to vaccinate teeenagers against COVID-19.

“It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Fiscus told the paper in a statement. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”

There’s a political subcurrent to the firing. Fiscus’ husband, Brad, ran as an independent candidate against state Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) in last year’s election, finishing third. Many of the lawmakers most upset about the state’s vaccinate efforts were strong supporters of Casada’s truncated House speakership, which collapsed in 2019 amid a racist and sexist text messaging scandal and complaints about a heavy-handed leadership style.

Casada, who played a key role in pushing through Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher law in 2019, was one of three sitting lawmakers to have their homes and offices searched by federal agents in January. No charges have been filed in the probe.

Michelle Fiscus’ full statement follows:

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