Dr. Robert Wynia, Gov. Schweitzer’s first appointee to head the enormous Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) didn’t work out too well. Stepping in to take over the largest and certainly one of the most complex agencies in state government would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone the 73-year-old Wynia, who resigned recently to tour the state in his RV with his wife. But sometimes early mistakes lead to better decisions later—which is exactly what happened with Schweitzer’s new appointment of health professional Joan Miles to lead DPHHS. It’s hard to imagine he could have done better.
Miles brings a wealth of long experience and broad professional capabilities to her new job. She has run the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department for 10 years, giving her invaluable hands-on experience in the huge range of issues that falls under the rubric of public health these days. And co-workers praise the way she has dealt with everything from bioterrorism to smoking bans to vaccine shortages.
While it’s tremendous to have those she supervised and worked with give her such high marks, what should really count for Montanans is that Miles’ head and heart are in the right place to complement her cool professionalism—and in sync with the challenges the state faces in the health and human services arena.
For instance, fully 20 years ago, Miles spent two terms as a legislator representing Helena’s progressive west-side neighborhoods. The same traits that earn her praise these days were evident way back then. Intelligent and articulate, Miles was fearless in debate on the floor of the House. Moreover, she brought significant background knowledge to her arguments, both through her early-’70s education in medical technology and her masters degree in environmental sciences from UM in 1979.
Nor was Miles’ commitment to a clean and healthy environment merely academic. Prior to becoming a legislator, Miles worked as a researcher and lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center from 1979 through ’81. As anyone who has lobbied the legislature on environmental issues can tell you, there’s a world of difference between sitting in an office reading technical environmental reports and going face-to-face with hostile legislators and the well-funded lobby for polluting industries. Certain lessons can only be learned in the trenches, and Miles, once again, brings those lessons to her new task.
While many new department heads have little concept of the fiscal aspects of their agencies, Miles hits the ground running in that regard. Having spent two sessions debating state budget bills in all their intricacies, Miles understands the complex interaction between government agencies and the elected representatives of the people. The agencies push for the budgets they think are necessary to meet their statutory responsibilities—but legislators want, and deserve, answers to their questions. An acknowledged expert in DPHHS budgetary and program issues, Sen. John Cobb, an Augusta Republican, said of Miles: “She knows what’s going on…she doesn’t play around…you know where she stands.” Coming from Cobb, who doesn’t beat around the bush, that’s high praise indeed for his former legislative colleague.
Following her legislative service, Miles went back to school once again, getting a law degree in 1991. In doing so, Miles added yet another essential skill to her already impressive arsenal. Now, not only had Miles written, debated and made laws, but she learned what happens after the Legislature leaves town and those laws get argued and interpreted in the judicial system. Upon completion of her law degree, she went to work as a university legal research assistant, did a stint in an analytical laboratory and clerked for the Montana Supreme Court from ’92 through ’94.
Nor is Miles a shrinking violet when it comes to speaking out on health issues. She was a firebrand in Helena’s raucous debate over the citizen-approved smoking ban in public places. Although the Republican-dominated 2003 Legislature saw fit to bend to industry pressure and overturn the Helena ban with a state statute, Miles fought until the end for the right of local citizens to determine their own health future.
Perhaps Miles’ best quality, however, is her ability to put all the pieces together and see the bigger picture. Instead of arguing whether the war in Iraq was justified or not, Miles noted that the significant diversion of federal dollars to the war effort was taking much-needed funding away from programs to help those with the greatest health needs in our society: young mothers, infants and HIV-positive patients.
Miles will certainly have plenty of opportunity to put her skills to use to continue to make the connections between a clean environment and the health and well-being of Montana’s citizens. In her hometown of Helena, the Ashgrove cement plant continues to burn toxic slag from the defunct Asarco smelter without a permit—raining pollutants down on the Helena Valley as it has done for nearly 30 years. The same slag is being burned in the Holcim cement plant in Trident—again without a permit or the Department of Environmental Quality even knowing what’s coming out the stacks and onto the citizens of the Gallatin Valley.
The causal effect between environmental pollutants and their broad impacts on human health is no longer some debatable theory. Montana alone has examples running the gamut from the asbestos tragedy at Libby to the mining and smelting pollution in Butte, Anaconda, and the Clark Fork River. In every instance, the cost of allowing pollution has been paid in human health impacts.
Let’s hope Miles will work with her fellow department heads to significantly reduce Montanans’ exposure to environmental pollutants. The more people sickened by industrial pollution, the more it costs to care for them. In the long run, the economics of pollution never pay. In her new position, Miles can argue forcefully for a cleaner, healthier future for all Montanans—so get ‘em, Joanie!
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.