Now Vasan has returned to the agency with a new role: Commissioner of the entire department, tapped by Mayor Eric Adams to oversee a $1.6 billion budget and a 6,000-person staff at a time when his leadership will be crucial to guiding the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Vasan, an epidemiologist and former CEO of a mental health nonprofit who co-chaired Democratic Mayor-elect Adams’ health transition team, said this week his focus as commissioner will be on improving mental health outcomes, particularly for children, as the city grapples with the trauma of Covid-19 for years to come.
“It’s hard to respond to complaints that are not specific,” Vasan said Friday in an interview. “I’ll only say what I said in the beginning: In my professional career, where I’ve managed hundreds of people, worked with hundreds of people from all sorts of backgrounds, demographic groups and personalities, I’ve tried to establish relationships that are founded on good communication and kindness and dignity. I intend to lead that way here and show up everyday for New Yorkers and for everyone at this agency in exactly that way.”
Vasan’s return to the city health department earlier this week comes after serving as the founding executive director of the Health Access Equity Unit from September 2016 to February 2019, when three staffers alleged in interviews he was pushed out of the post just as his team readied to launch a major project. The unit, now called the Bureau of Health Promotion for Justice-Involved Populations, focused on connecting people involved in the criminal justice system and their families to services while developing “innovative models of trauma-informed care,” according to Vasan’s LinkedIn page.
He was also tasked with securing funding for various projects, including a $4.58 million grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, according to his 20-page resume included in his agency personnel records, which were obtained by POLITICO as part of a Freedom of Information Law request.
During his two and a half years at the city health department, Vasan developed a reputation of being “difficult” and a “bad boss,” according to three current and former employees who were granted anonymity because they feared retaliation.
The three employees described an environment where Vasan was curt and dismissive, particularly to his female colleagues. Staff would hold meetings without him, not only to improve work efficiency but also to provide emotional support in a work environment two people described as “toxic,” the employees said.
His alleged behavior drew at least two complaints, which prompted intervention from Vasan’s supervisor, then-deputy commissioner Sonia Angell, the staffers said. When asked directly if he was aware of any complaints filed against him during his time at the health department, Vasan said, “Not specifically, no.”
In his first managerial performance evaluation in 2017, Vasan scored the equivalent of a “B,” or “greatly exceeds expectations.” The agency records are partially redacted, including in the areas where he succeeded or failed.
He was commended for bringing in funding and was described as a valuable addition to the department for being “creative, thoughtful and generous with his ideas,” according to the agency records. But in the evaluation, health department higher-ups noted they had “arranged coaching to assist with management skills and navigating team relations” and would support him throughout that process.
Vasan signed off on the evaluation on Feb. 7, 2018, indicating the plan had been communicated to him, and in April he emailed his team with more details about the coaching.
“As a part of my journey to improve as a person, friend, colleague and leader, I have embarked on a self-funded executive coaching program,” Vasan said in an email that was read to POLITICO by someone with access to the message.
His executive assistant then sent a follow-up email, saying the coaching would be on hold due to a potential conflict of interest.
“I was never asked to do coaching during my time here, but I gladly sought it out on my own. We have coaches on retainer here, at the health department, that we make available to every single senior leader, including the cabinet down to executive directors and directors, it’s available to our leaders because all leaders should have access to the kind of skills and conversations that happen during coaching to improve communication, to improve management,” Vasan said. “I gladly took it, I gladly sought it out on my own. I gladly continued it after I left DOH, during my time at Fountain House. I continue it today, and I think it’s been a great benefit.”
Vasan said he paid for the coaching out of his own pocket, but didn’t recall how much it cost him.
After the initial review, Vasan continued to clash not only with his staff but also senior leadership, one of the three employees said, though he received a raise — bumping his pay from $176,460 in September 2017 to $190,430 in September 2018, according to the agency records. Colleagues said the work environment was still tense and Vasan was at odds with Angell. In Vasan’s managerial performance evaluation for 2018, he scored similarly to the prior year, but the report appears to have been conducted around Vasan’s pending departure. There is no date on the form, but a rubber stamp mark indicates it was received after Vasan’s resignation.
“We have accomplished a lot in a short time building the Health Access Equity Unit. Some of the requirements of the position suited my natural strengths very well (external relations, fundraising, advocacy, communication, strategy, planning), others less so (bureaucratic process, institutional hierarchy, navigating agency protocols),” Vasan wrote in the self-evaluation section. “But I have done my best, under the circumstances, and I do not think we would have had as much success if I had worked in a different way, followed all the rules, and deferred to my superiors as much as was expected/demanded.”
The timing of Vasan’s departure struck some staffers as odd: His team was about to launch the “Health Justice Network” initiative, which would help former inmates returning to their communities, with the $4.58 million in funding from the Manhattan DA and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
In a self-disclosure statement submitted as part of the hiring process to become health commissioner, Vasan checked a box saying he hadn’t “resigned from a job to avoid an [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] investigation, disciplinary action or termination.” The statement only applies to the previous 24 months, which wouldn’t capture his earlier tenure at the agency.
His resignation letter to then-Commissioner Oxiris Barbot and Angell, dated Jan. 9, 2019, noted that “as previously agreed with Dr Angell and PPC Administration [Bureau of Prevention and Primary Care Administration], my last day will be February 8th, 2019.”
Angell and Barbot did not return requests for comment.
Agency records classify Vasan’s departure as a resignation as of Feb. 10, 2019.
Vasan indicated he was leaving to “explore new work opportunities,” according to the agency records. He did not start as president and CEO of Fountain House, a nonprofit that runs social clubs for people with serious mental illnesses, until seven months after his departure from the health department in September 2019.
As part of his vetting process to become commissioner, Vasan attested that he’s never been unemployed for more than four months since graduating high school, even though he did not list any employment in the seven month stretch between leaving the health department and starting at Fountain House. Vasan did take care to note, however, that he worked a retail job at J. Crew for seven months in 2002.
“Leadership transitions were happening all over the place here. The person who brought me in, [former health commissioner] Mary Bassett and others, were leaving, had left,” Vasan said of his departure, adding that he gave four-weeks notice.
Vasan also explained the resume gap between his first tenure at the health department and his subsequent work for Fountain House.
“I took a break. I wanted to see patients, I wanted to teach,” he said. “I wanted to spend more time with my kids, travel. I did a bunch of stuff in that time. I was also in a pretty aggressive recruitment process over many months to make the decision to become the CEO of Fountain House. That was all on me, and it was a really good time.”
Vasan’s return has some former and current staffers concerned about the department’s future under his leadership.
One current health department employee said news of his appointment prompted frustration from some female assistant commissioners who outranked him during his time at the agency.
In its public records request, POLITICO sought any U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints about unfair treatment or harassment filed against Vasan by health department employees. A search by the city health department’s Freedom of Information Law office concluded “there are no records in the agency’s possession which would be responsive to this part of your request.”
Health Department spokesperson Patrick Gallahue added that the agency has no records of EEO complaints, substantiated or unsubstantiated, against Vasan.
City Hall Communications Director Maxwell Young said, “Mayor Adams is hiring the best people for the right jobs. Dr. Vasan is a world class leader who will help New York emerge from the pandemic and prepare for any future challenges.
“He will serve New York well, and they will see his talent, commitment, and intelligence every day,” Young said in a statement.
After publication Young forwarded the following statement from a former colleague of Vasan who still works at the health department.
“Throughout my time working under Dr. Vasan I found him to be a kind and collaborative leader,” said Simran Chaudhri, a program associate in the agency’s division of mental hygiene.
“He consistently made space for all team members to bring their ideas to the table and attempted to incorporate them wherever possible. He was communicative and compassionate, always open to hearing and working through issues together while supporting us to explore our ideas and build on our strengths,” Chaudhri said.