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Randall Williams resigns as health director; Robert Knodell named acting chief

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Dr. Randall Williams resigned as Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) director Tuesday. Gov. Mike Parson appointed Robert Knodell, his deputy chief of staff, as the acting director. 

“Dr. Williams has been a huge asset to Missouri, especially this past year in dealing with COVID-19,” Parson said. “We greatly appreciate all the work he has done for the people of our state and wish him the best in his future endeavors.” 

Williams, an OBGYN, took over as the director of DHSS after he was appointed by former Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017. Before that, Williams worked in North Carolina, his home state, as the director for its Department of Health and Human Services. He didn’t plan to leave the Tar Heel State for Missouri, a place he only briefly visited as a child, but after flying out for an interview, he was hooked.

“I tell people all the time: I’m a North Carolinian by birth, a Missourian by choice, and both by God’s grace,” Williams told The Missouri Times in a 2019 profile.

Knodell has worked as Parson’s deputy chief of staff since 2017. He’s been responsible for coordinating across multiple state government agencies to get millions of Missourians inoculated against COVID-19

“As deputy chief of staff, Robert brings valuable knowledge and leadership experience to our team and the entire state of Missouri,” Parson said. “For more than a year, he has also played a leading role in Missouri’s COVID-19 response efforts, and I am more than confident in him to take over as Acting Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services.”

Additionally, Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann left his position Tuesday as well.

Robert Knodell 

Robert Knodell_vaccine_rollout

After graduating from Southeast Missouri State with an accounting degree, he spent some time auditing in the private sector before jumping on an opportunity to work as a staffer for the Legislative Oversight Committee in the Missouri State House of Representatives in 2003. From there, he worked a number of jobs for the Majority Caucus, both inside the building and on the campaign trail. These early years in the House were when a friendship and professional relationship began with Parson, then a state representative in 2005.

As Parson’s political career advanced, so did Knodell’s. He was working as the executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee when the now-governor approached him and asked him to serve as his deputy chief of staff.

“We worked together, built a good relationship, maintained a friendship, and on occasion, a working relationship on the campaign side,” Knodell said. “That relationship resulted in him extending an opportunity for me.”

Before coordinating the state’s vaccine distribution became his primary focus, he spent his time trying to drive the governor’s policy agenda, reform government, and engage in the administration’s priorities throughout the state.

Randall Williams

Dr. Randall Williams, TWMP
Dr. Randall Williams on “This Week in Missouri Politics.”

One issue that remained at the forefront of concerns brought to him as he traveled the state — both in rural and urban areas — was the opioid crisis. How the epidemic manifested itself varied by community, but it still affected nearly every, if not all, of the counties he visited.

“We’ve got to move upstream, to the degree we can, so people don’t become addicted in the first place. .. The second [thing] is stopping the deaths in St. Louis” where most of the opioid deaths in the state occur, Williams said of his plans to tackle the crisis. Aside from addiction, heroin or other drugs can be laced with fentanyl without the users’ knowledge, contributing more to accidental overdoses in the state.

Additionally, Williams has a focus on improving health care access in rural areas, rolling out the medical marijuana initiative, improving women’s health care, and decreasing the maternal and infant mortality rates.

He found himself embroiled in an abortion debate during his tenure as the DHSS director when the state attempted to shutter the last remaining abortion clinic.

“Abortion is legal in Missouri, and we encourage all to work with our regulators to make sure it is safe,” Williams said at the time. “We do not let this part of our work keep us from the incredibly important issues we face … but it does mean we work many 14-hour days and more weekends — that just comes with the job.”

Conner Kerrigan contributed to this report.