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New city health commissioner to lead campaign against substance abuse

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has tapped a high-profile emergency room physician and former Rhodes scholar to be Baltimore's new health commissioner and guide the city in addressing the root causes of substance abuse.

The appointment of Dr. Leana S. Wen, a Chinese immigrant who entered college at age 13, will be announced Friday. She is expected to start Jan. 15, pending City Council confirmation.

"She has a lot of good energy and a strong desire for public service," Rawlings-Blake told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday. "She has a passion for public health, and I think she has the right experience to help move the health department forward."

Wen, 31, will be the third-highest-paid city employee with a salary of $200,000, earning more than Rawlings-Blake's $160,000 paycheck. She replaces Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who left in April to work for New York City's health department.

Wen said Rawlings-Blake has charged her with taking an aggressive approach to preventing substance abuse. A city task force this week estimated there are 19,000 heroin users in Baltimore and will be making recommendations on battling heroin use. In the meantime, Wen said, she wants to bolster the city's needle exchange program and increase the number of people trained to administer naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.

Lively and fast-talking, Wen said her other leading agendas include launching a youth wellness campaign, helping the elderly stay independent and empowering communities to make healthier decisions.

But first she wants to meet with faith leaders, neighborhood associations and activists to ask what health issues are most important to them.

"From the time that I was young, I was exposed to all of the issues with poverty and disparities and drug abuse and violence that are probably similar to what some children in Baltimore experience," said Wen, who lived in rough Los Angeles neighborhoods while growing up. "Many of my classmates and friends were the victims but also the perpetrators of gun violence. I saw every day what happens when people die from treatable medical conditions."

Wen has most recently worked as an attending physician and director of patient-centered care at George Washington University's emergency medicine department. She's also an assistant professor at the university. She's stepping down from those positions and moving to the city with her husband, Sebastian Walker, an information technology officer.

Her family fled China when she was 8 years old, seeking political asylum in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests, Wen said.

She never attended high school and instead tested into a program at California State University, Los Angeles. She earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, graduating summa cum laude by the time she was 18. She went on to become a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's longtime health commissioner who now runs the Evergreen Health Cooperative, said Wen is the right choice to lead the city department.

"She's extremely bright, very dynamic," said Beilenson, who was 32 when former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke tapped him to lead the city health department in 1992. "She has good clinical experience and political savvy."

Beilenson said Wen has an advantage that he didn't: the Affordable Care Act. Wen and her team won't have to spend so much energy looking for money to pay for care that's now covered by insurance plans, he said.

Beilenson said Wen should work to address the 20-year variance in life expectancy among Baltimore neighborhoods by finding ways to address certain conditions, including high blood pressure.

"For a person who wants to sink their teeth in public health, there are a lot of issues still to work on. And it's a manageable-size city where you can really make difference," Beilenson said.

Dr. Stephen N. Davis, a department chair at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he's eager to work with Wen, calling her "extraordinarily well qualified for the position." She'll face many challenges in her new position, including addressing chronic diseases, mental health and addiction treatment, and trauma and violence intervention, Davis noted.

Together with the city's anchor institutions, Davis said, the health department has the potential to "harness the knowledge and the skills and expertise to really try and solve these very large and important health concerns."

Wen said she sees such relationships as key. She wants to volunteer to work in some of the city's emergency rooms to see firsthand the biggest health challenges facing Baltimoreans. And she hopes to help families improve their knowledge about health, which will help them make better lifestyle choices and select the care that works best for them.

"These are the issues that I think will resonate with people, but I am also very willing to listen to other ideas and work closely with the mayor and other senior city leaders to figure out the core priority areas," Wen said.

Wen was one of about 40 applicants for the post. She was selected from a pool of five finalists.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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