Rahul Gupta accused of creating toxic work environment: report

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Indian American director of the White House office tasked with helping the nation manage a debilitating opioid epidemic has been accused of creating a “toxic” work environment, according to a media report.

Several former and current officials have blamed Gupta for “significant staff turnover and large-scale discontent” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), according to Politico.

Politico cited nine unnamed people familiar with the office’s operations, including seven former and current officials, describing Gupta as “egocentric and a ‘prima donna’ preoccupied with his public profile.”

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At least eight top officials and a number of other aides have resigned in recent months in large part because of Gupta’s leadership, according to the same officials, the political news website reported.

The departures have created a significant leadership vacuum in the office of roughly 75 people, leading to dysfunction across the team that has caused important deadlines to be missed, the people familiar with the office’s operations were cited as saying.

“When everybody leaves, it can’t be ‘everybody is the problem,’” one of the unnamed former officials was quoted as saying. “On some level, you might be the problem.”

An ONDCP official, in response to a request for comment, told Politico the office’s “critical mission to address the overdose epidemic is deeply personal to Dr. Gupta: from his decades of work as a physician treating patients with substance use disorder, to leading the public health response efforts in ground zero of the opioid crisis in West Virginia.”

READ: Indian Americans, Atul Gawande, Rahul Gupta to get key health roles (July 14, 2021)

“Dr. Gupta remains laser-focused on the office’s work to strengthen life-saving public health services, prevent illicit drugs from reaching our communities, and meeting with Americans across the country to strengthen our whole-of-society response,” the official said.

Gupta, a practicing physician of more than 25 years, most recently served as the chief medical and health officer, interim chief science officer and senior vice president at the nonprofit March of Dimes before being appointed by President Joe Biden to his current post in 2021.

He also served under two West Virginia governors as the state’s health commissioner and was a professor of medicine at several universities.

The White House praised Gupta’s nomination in 2021 as a “historic step in the Administration’s efforts to turn the tide of our nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic.”

But the seven current and former officials told Politico that Gupta has not lived up to that billing. They told the website “he put unrealistic pressure on his small team to raise his public profile, such as becoming frustrated when staff were unable to land meetings with a high-ranking official during his travels.”

“In the public-facing role, Gupta travels domestically and abroad frequently, and staff often felt he had unrealistic demands about his travel accommodations,” Politico said

The trips, the former and current officials cited by the website suggested, “often centered around Gupta rather than the work ONDCP was doing. He expected Cabinet-level treatment when traveling and would blow up plans when staff couldn’t deliver.”

He canceled one trip last year, after months of planning, because he didn’t want to fly Southwest Airlines, the officials were quoted as saying.

“He also once calculated the square-footage of a hotel room, and then requested staff book him a larger room. And he liked to roll up to events — including weekend embassy parties — in a black government SUV with staff, even though that sort of service is not typically used by ONDCP directors for events unrelated to the office’s direct work.”

Politico cited current and former staffers as saying they believe his approach to the job is directly at odds with the president’s early insistence that he would not tolerate demeaning behavior by his team.

The tension flowing through the office has been a major distraction, the current and former officials were quoted as saying. Perhaps most frustrating, they said, is that internal dysfunction has taken attention away from the important issues the office is tasked with addressing, particularly combatting the historic overdose crisis.

Four of the former ONDCP officials were cited as saying Gupta was to blame for the recent departures. And few had any hope that the office could turn things around under his leadership.

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