Health

Under fire for his leadership, Mecklenburg Health Director Marcus Plescia will step down

Plescia, who heads the Mecklenburg County Health Department, faced growing criticism after it was revealed that county health clinics had mishandled test results for nearly 200 women who were screened for cervical cancer.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia addresses reporters Feb. 22, 2017. (Qcitymetro.com)

Under fire for his leadership, Mecklenburg Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia will step down in early August as head of the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

In a statement Tuesday, County Manager Dena Diorio thanked Plescia for his years of service but said Plescia “realizes that new leadership is needed to improve our processes and produce better outcomes for the residents who depend on Public Health every day.”

His last day on the job will be Aug. 4.

Plescia became a target for critics when the Charlotte Observer reported in February that nearly 200 women who went to county health clinics for cervical cancer screenings had not been told of their abnormal test results. (All of the women were later notified, and none was believed to face medical danger.)

The notification problems were traced to a county nurse who, according to county officials, did not perform her duties as expected. At least four employees left the health department as a result of the incident. Plescia issued a public apology, calling it a “system breakdown.”

“I can’t make any excuses for that,” he told a group of African American pastors who met with him in late February at First Baptist Church-West. “We’re embarrassed about it. I’m embarrassed about it. …It happened under my leadership, and I take responsibility for it.”

For some in the black community, the department’s mishandling of the test results were indicative of a government agency unconcerned with the health of its clients, nearly all of whom are poor.

Plescia vowed to fix what was broken at the county clinics and brought in state examiners and outside consultants to review the clinics’ internal workings.

Plescia’s problems intensified in May when the Observer quoted several unnamed sources within the department who said employees there were afraid to speak up. Others complained that Plescia focused too much on preventive health measures and not enough on patient care.

Plescia became Mecklenburg health director in February 2014 after leaving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he ran a cancer-prevention program and his work focused on the poor. After graduating from medical school at UNC Chapel Hill, he treated AIDS patients in the South Bronx, N.Y., during his residency training in the early 1990s. He also spent time as a doctor on the Cherokee reservation in Western North Carolina while he was at the CDC.

As county health director, Plescia initiated several wellness programs aimed at reducing chronic disease. Among them is a smoking ban on all government property in Mecklenburg County. He also established a seasonal farmer’s market on Beattie’s Ford Road, and added healthy options for county-catered meals and vending machines.

Taxpayers spend about $70 million a year for public health for Mecklenburg County’s 1 million people. The Health Department’s 800 employees are charged with a wide range of duties, regulating everything from restaurants and child care centers to swimming pools.

With an annual salary of about $240,000, Plescia is one of the top-paid figures in county government.

The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

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