Meet the man who’s taking the helm at Utah’s health agency during COVID-19

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Saunders is the new director of the Utah Department of Health, Sept. 3, 2020.

When Richard Saunders says he has private sector experience, he means he’s done everything from co-founding a multimillion-dollar construction company to peddling one of his products on the QVC shopping network.

But Saunders’ career as a businessman and consultant took a sharp turn in 2015, when he signed on to do some temporary consulting work within the Utah Department of Health and ended up sticking around. And now, five years later, he’s taking over as head of the state’s public health agency as it attempts to navigate through the worst pandemic in living memory.

The choice of Saunders for the health department’s top spot caught some people off guard, given his lack of public health or medical experience. His resume didn’t even fit the legal requirements for the post — a problem that Utah legislators solved last month by adapting state law to match Saunders’ credentials.

“There’s no secret I’m not a doctor, and my education is not in public health,” he said, although he noted that he’s worked in leadership at the health department for more than three years.

Still, the legislative changes enabling Saunders’ appointment were disconcerting to a handful of lawmakers, who argued that a pandemic is no time to ease the agency’s leadership requirements.

“I have real concerns about changing and lowering the bar for the Department of Health leadership in the midst of the most unprecedented pandemic of our lifetimes,” Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, a physician, said on the House floor.

Other legislators said management and administrative skills are even more important than medical expertise to successfully run a department that controls a large budget and workforce.

Saunders said organizations often have leaders who are not themselves subject matter experts, but these supervisors succeed by surrounding themselves with the best advisers. That’s what he intends to do, he said, adding that he has appointed Dr. Joseph Miner, former head of the state health department, as one of his two deputies. Heather Borski, who has a master’s degree in public health and has led the health department’s division of disease control and prevention, is his second deputy.

“I don’t blame anyone for being concerned,” Saunders said of his nomination as department head. “But I would assure the people of Utah that they do not need to be concerned. We have expertise and more in the areas that need it.”

Saunders initially joined the state health department to do some consulting work within the Medicaid program in what he expected would be a roughly six-month stay. Instead, his consulting activity morphed into a performance management model that the entire health department adopted, and he was in charge of implementing it across the agency.

This role gave him direct exposure to most of the health department’s programs, he said, “looking under the hood and getting to know the people."

Since his arrival, Saunders said, the department has won two operational excellence awards from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, one for a project on hypertension and another for achieving significant improvements in productivity.

He also promoted telework and supported the agency’s effort to earn accreditation as a public health department, he said.

As the pandemic descended, however, his focus shifted to aiding the state in battling the disease. Over the past six months or so, he said, he has been working with the governor’s Cabinet and health department leadership in “trying to figure out how to be agile and effective in our response.”

Saunders said Gov. Gary Herbert asked him to serve as a deputy to Gen. Jeff Burton, who spent several months heading up the health department’s response to COVID-19. With Burton’s departure several weeks ago, Saunders took over as an interim leader of the agency.

His educational background — he graduated from University of California, Davis with a degree in organizational behavior — has been an asset during this time, as a flurry of task forces and agencies brought different approaches to the pandemic.

“That was very taxing on the folks at the Department of Health,” he said. “One of the difficult but valuable undertakings that I played a part in … was to unite these efforts and to streamline our focus so that we can use the resources more effectively.”

State officials are preparing to roll out this new framework, which will more clearly articulate each group’s role in the fight against COVID-19 and metrics for gauging success, he said.

Going forward, Saunders said a major goal for him is to create stability at a health department that has been thrown into turmoil by the pandemic. Agency staffers need that solid ground to use their expertise to its greatest capacity, he said.

He doesn’t foresee that his private consulting business, Theory to Execution, will create a conflict with his new position. He has no state contracts, he said, and has told his clients he’s discontinuing services for the time being.

“Maybe I’ll go back there someday,” he said.