Wen look­ing for­ward to na­tional spot­light

City health com­mis­sioner mov­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea K. McDaniels

Women are in for the fight of their lives in the next few years, says Dr. Leana Wen, Bal­ti­more’s de­part­ing health com­mis­sioner.

And start­ing next month Wen will be on the front lines of that bat­tle over women’s health when the 35-year-old be­comes ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Planned Par­ent­hood of Amer­ica.

“Planned Par­ent­hood, and much more broadly women’s health care, is un­der as­sault ev­ery­where,” said Wen, whose last day as com­mis­sioner is to­day.

Wen fears the ad­di­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh, a con­ser­va­tive heavy­weight whose nom­i­na­tion was marred by al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault, to the Supreme Court last week could in­crease the threat to is­sues im­por­tant to women, such as abor­tion rights

“There is a real prob­a­bil­ity that Roe v. Wade could be over­turned or eroded in the next year,” she said.

Not one to shy away from con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, Wen said she is ready for the na­tional spot­light, and to work for an or­ga­ni­za­tion where she can be even more out­spo­ken. Dr. Leana Wen has been Bal­ti­more health com­mis­sioner for four years and has been a fre­quent critic of state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment fund­ing for the city.

As health com­mis­sioner, she some­times held back some of her opin­ions. For ex­am­ple, she wishes she had chal­lenged Gov. Larry Ho­gan on the way he doled out money for key health pro­grams. Bal­ti­more should have re­ceived a greater por­tion in some cases, in­clud­ing funds for opi­oid use pre­ven­tion, be­cause the city bears the brunt of the over­doses, she said.

“I wish that I called out the state more for what they haven’t done for Bal­ti­more,” said Wen, re­flect­ing on her four years as health com­mis­sioner. “I am a po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee, re­port­ing to the mayor. I wanted to stay far on the side of not be­ing par­ti­san and po­lit­i­cal.”

A spokes­woman for Ho­gan dis­agreed with Wen’s as­ser­tions and said the ad­min­is­tra­tion has funded many Bal­ti­more ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing giv­ing the city more money for the fight against the opi­oid cri­sis than any other ju­ris­dic­tion. The city re­ceived 58 per­cent more in fund­ing for nalox­one, the drug that re­verses an over­dose, than the aver­age amount re­ceived by other coun­ties, said the spokes­woman, Amelia Chasse.

“It’s dis­ap­point­ing that Dr. Wen is choos­ing to end her ten­ure by con­tin­u­ing to make mis­lead­ing state­ments about the state's sup­port for Bal­ti­more City,” Chasse said in an email.

When she wasn’t pres­sur­ing the state for more fund­ing, Wen was of­ten found tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore Congress, the Mary­land Gen­eral As­sem­bly, or at Bal­ti­more City Hall, speak­ing out on is­sues such as sug­ary drinks in kids meals, the im­por­tance of the Af­ford­able Care Act and fund­ing for anti-vi­o­lence and opi­oid re­duc­tion pro- grams.

“She is ex­tremely bright and she knows her sub­ject mat­ter back­ward and for­ward,” said Demo­cratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. “She knows how to build coali­tions to ad­dress is­sues that are po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial to the point that she gets re­sults.”

Pe­ter Beilen­son, a former Bal­ti­more health com­mis­sioner, said Wen has a tal­ent for mak­ing peo­ple relate to her with sto­ries about her times as an emer­gency room doc­tor or grow­ing up poor in Cal­i­for­nia. It was Planned Par­ent­hood she and her fam­ily turned to for health care when she was grow­ing up.

“She was very good at get­ting her point across and ty­ing it to peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives,” said Beilen­son, who now works in pub­lic health in his na­tive Cal­i­for­nia. “I think she will flour­ish at Planned Par­ent­hood.”

Vin­cent DeMarco, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Cit­i­zens' Health Ini­tia­tive, said Wen sup­ported all of the ini­tia­tives the ad­vo­cacy group pro­posed, in­clud­ing a plan to drive down pre­scrip­tion drug costs.

“She was a great voice for pub­lic health in An­napo­lis,” DeMarco said.

Leav­ing the health depart­ment, where Wen earned about $216,000 a year, rouses a mix of emo­tions, she said. She’ll miss her team of em­ploy­ees who helped the depart­ment reach many mile­stones, in­clud­ing re­duc­ing in­fant mor­tal­ity by 38 per­cent, dis­tribut­ing free eye­glasses to more than 3,000 school chil­dren, get­ting nalox­one into the hands of thou­sands of city res­i­dents and mak­ing healthy drinks, such as wa­ter, the de­fault in kids meals.

Mayor Cather­ine Pugh said Wen’s mark Dr. Leana Wen is leav­ing her post as Bal­ti­more health com­mis­sioner for the last four years to be­come pres­i­dent of the Planned Par­ent­hood Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica. on the city will be felt for a long time to come. “She has been the city health czar and I think it is a tremen­dous loss for us,” Pugh said. “But I told her to go fly be­cause now she has chance to be­come a na­tional fig­ure in women’s health. I am just glad I had an op­por­tu­nity to work with her for the last two years.”

At Planned Par­ent­hood, Wen takes over an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides es­sen­tial health care to more than 2.4 mil­lion women, men and youths through more than 600 health cen­ters across the coun­try. She will be­come only the sec­ond physi­cian to head the 102-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion.

She knows she has a big job ahead of her. There are13 cases in­volv­ing women’s health that are one step away from the Supreme Court, she said. There is the con­stant at­tack on the Af­ford­able Care Act. There are states that would like to erode women’s ac­cess to abor­tions. “Women’s health has got­ten at­tacked in such a way that lit­er­ally threat­ens peo­ple’s lives,” Wen­said. “And the cost of all of our po­lit­i­cal fights is peo­ple’s lives.”

Pugh will con­duct a na­tional search to re­place Wen. Mary Beth Hall, an at­tor­ney and deputy com­mis­sioner for youth well­ness and com­mu­nity health at the health depart­ment, will lead the agency in the in­terim. Hall pre­vi­ously served as as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of en­vi­ron­men­tal health in the divi­sion of dis­ease con­trol, where she was re­spon­si­ble for the of­fice of an­i­mal con­trol and the of­fice of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion ser­vices.

Wen said one of her big­gest chal­lenges as com­mis­sioner was get­ting peo­ple to see pub­lic health as a pri­or­ity like they do ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic safety and crime. It was a con­stant sell­ing point, but one that was im­por­tant be­cause the per­cep­tion was tied to fund­ing.

She ad­vised the next health com­mis­sioner to be a per­sis­tent cru­sader.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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