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Dr. Aliya Jones, new deputy health secretary and head of the Behavioral Health Administration
Dr. Aliya Jones, new deputy health secretary and head of the Behavioral Health Administration (Keith Weller/courtesy of the Maryland Department of Health)

The Maryland Department of Health has filled a crucial leadership job after an advertisement for the post drew controversy for offering an unusually high salary for such a position.

Dr. Aliya Jones will become a deputy secretary and head of the state’s Behavioral Health Administration, which oversees state mental hospitals and community programs for substance use, among other services.

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Jones is a psychiatrist and previously worked at Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, where she served for seven years as chief of psychiatry and chair of behavioral health.

A post in the fall offered pay that could reach nearly $465,000 — more than three times the last deputy’s salary and far exceeding the pay for all other state agency administrators. Jones will earn $375,000, the Health Department reported.

Health Secretary Robert Neall said last week he wanted a psychiatrist to fill the role, which has become vital as demand for behavioral health services and opioid-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

“We face a number of challenges in behavioral health, including the ongoing opioid crisis,” Neall said in a statement. “Managing the vast array of clinical and therapeutic treatments services, public awareness and prevention programs and other related efforts is no easy feat. To have found someone who understands Maryland’s unique challenges is invaluable."

At Bon Secours, Jones led 22 service programs, including the nation’s first court-involved diversion program, the health department said. She also served on Baltimore’s Heroin and Prevention Task Force, the Maryland Hospital Association’s Behavioral Health Task Force and Maryland’s Forensic Advisory Workgroup.

She earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Maryland and a medical degree from the University of Virginia.

The proposed salary for the position had raised eyebrows among state lawmakers and some in the behavioral health arena, who said such a state position is rarely filled by a psychiatrist. There is no requirement the job be filled by a medical doctor.

Psychiatrists have been in short supply and national associations say the problem is likely to intensify in coming years as more people report some kind of mental health condition. A state agency already reported that the Health Department had been boosting psychiatrist pay, particularly at rural state-run hospitals, beyond $200,000, to keep doctors in their positions.

The position had been empty since April, when Barbara Bazron left for a similar job in Washington, D.C. She held a doctorate in philosophy and worked as a family therapist and earned $154,000 last year, according to a salary database maintained by The Baltimore Sun.

Neall contends a doctor will help an agency better integrate services for mental health and substance use disorders. And it will help operations at the agency, which has faced legal challenges that included an order to reduce delays in providing psychiatric beds for mentally ill criminal defendants.

“As a psychiatrist, it will be personally rewarding to make a difference in the public behavioral health care delivery system, an institution that has such great influence over the way behavioral health care services are delivered in this state,” said Jones in a statement. “I am thankful to Secretary Neall for his forward thinking and for calling for a physician to lead this administration.”

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