Reyn, Reyn, Go Away
Photo labs for personal use installed in the health department's administrative offices. A proposal to add a "Commissioner of Love" to the agency payroll. Health department employees booing their own chief administrator at an HIV/STD conference.
For nearly three years, the evidence has been piling up in plain sight that former Texas Dept. of Health commissioner William "Reyn" Archer, who resigned from the post last week, was on a long, loopy misadventure. The saga, as it played out in the pages of the Houston Chronicle, might have been humorous had not the health department's mission been such a deadly serious one. Yet Gov. George W. Bush continued to ignore the situation, even as money for school-based health clinics was redirected into office remodeling and research into the "conflicting dynamics of love and alienation" that cause health problems.
Archer entered the health commissioner's post with solid right-wing credentials, having served as President George Bush's point person on the "gag rule" policy while an official with the U.S. Health and Human Services Dept. That short-lived dictate forbade anyone but doctors from counseling women about abortion at public health clinics. Archer, who once said that birth control pills gave women too much power over men, was heartily endorsed by abortion foes and other conservatives. But women's rights groups and many state legislators publicly assailed Archer's record when it was discovered that he was a serious candidate for the top job at TDH.
Later, Archer backed away from some of his statements. After he was hired by Gov. Bush, his critics in the Texas Legislature agreed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, those legislators say Archer should have been fired even before he made national headlines in April with his comment that Hispanic communities encourage teenage girls to become pregnant. Archer apologized for those statements, and Bush said he was satisfied. But the governor was finally forced to depose Archer when a former TDH administrator who is black sued him last month for questioning her allegiance to her race.
State Representative Garnet Coleman was a member of the state Appropriations Committee who, along with committee chair Rob Junell, toured TDH offices in 1999 to confirm that Archer and associate commissioner Jerry Campbell had built their own private darkrooms there. That highly publicized visit couldn't have failed to get the governor's attention, says Coleman. "We had the chair of the Appropriations Committee going down to TDH to walk the halls and ask where the darkrooms were," says Coleman. "That just doesn't happen."
Coleman, who also serves on the Public Health Committee, says this was only the beginning of Archer's agenda to redirect health department spending according to his whims. It quickly became "very, very clear," says Coleman, that Archer was insensitive to the most pressing needs of Texans' public health -- such as health insurance -- and more interested in pursuing initiatives outside those accepted by mainstream health professionals as effective or logical.
In addition to withholding TDH appropriations for school-based health clinics, Archer also directed the agency to stop tracking AIDS patients anonymously and to use the patients' names instead. "One of the first things Archer did was undermine our system of confidential testing through unique identifier numbers and require name testing ... It was a direct order," says Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, another early critic of Archer.
In 1998, Archer was booed by health professionals and even his own employees when, at an HIV/STD conference, he said he opposed dispensing sterile needles to drug users because it sent the wrong message.
Texas Board of Health member Mary Ceverha says the board made Archer the top contender for the health commissioner post in 1997 because it wanted a bilingual leader with expertise in dealing with tuberculosis to tackle health problems along the border. As a director with Project HOPE, a nonprofit that sponsors health initiatives in Third World countries, Archer had spent two years fighting tuberculosis in Kazakhstan.
Danburg points out, however, that Hispanics with similar qualifications were also candidates for the post. "The governor told them [Archer] was the one he wanted," says Danburg. Ceverha responds that the governor never expressed to her any preference for a candidate.
Archer, the son of U.S. Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer, was able to defuse charges that he was acting in lockstep with the right wing's agenda through comments that, while often inflammatory, were also ambiguous enough to suggest that he didn't understand their full implications. Sometimes his words were just plain confusing, as when he was quoted in a 1999 issue of Physician magazine saying, "We know that 65% of teenage girls who get pregnant have been molested or abused some time in their life. If a sexually active teen comes in, and we immediately give her the pill, then are we complicit in the relationship being nonconsensual?"
But whatever Archer's personal feelings, Coleman says Archer's administrative record is a long litany of questionable priorities. In fact, Coleman says he now believes Archer was disguising his extreme views with touchy-feely concepts such as "population-based" disease prevention. "Most people would think when you talk about population-based public health, you would have programs that deal with obesity on a wide level by promoting nutrition, wellness, and exercise. But [he means] it in a different way. It is social engineering through a philosophical/spiritual mindset," says Coleman. Archer, for example, was known to associate frequently with officials from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a nonprofit that advocates an end to government promotion of contraceptives and other safe-sex campaigns. A recent editorial on the group's Web site called for the winner of the 2000 presidential race to become "the marriage president."
Danburg says Gov. Bush knew exactly what he was getting when he hired Archer: a commissioner who appealed to right-wing ideologues. "I think it reflects poorly on George Bush's record of appointment selections. ... He considered appeasing the right wing much more important than improving public health in this state," says Danburg.