Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s Health Commissioner, is leaving to serve as the president of Planned Parenthood. Wen has been in charge of the city’s health department since January 2015.
Becoming the new head of Planned Parenthood Federation of America is personal for Dr. Leana Wen, who is resigning as Baltimore health commissioner after nearly four years to take the new job.
She has firsthand experience with the need for the organization, which announced Wen as its new president on Wednesday.
Growing up poor in California, Wen, her little sister and mother received much of their health care from the organization, which is dedicated to women’s health rights and access to medical services for the needy.
She said she is leaving a job she loves in Baltimore because of growing attacks by the Trump administration and other conservatives on Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive health rights.
“I see how the single, biggest health catastrophe of our times is the threat to women’s health,” Wen said. “I am deeply troubled by how women’s health issues are singled out, stigmatized and attacked.”
Wen’s departure leaves the administration of Mayor Catherine Pugh with another critical vacancy. Pugh accepted Wen’s resignation Tuesday and Wen told health department staff in a conference call Wednesday.
“We have made significant progress in addressing issues of health disparity across our City, and in developing innovative approaches for prevention and treatment,” Pugh said in a statement. “Dr. Wen has achieved national leadership on a broad range of public health issues, which has also led to national recognition for the Baltimore Health Department as among the most impactful in improving health outcomes for citizens of all ages.”
Pugh also said the city would launch an immediate national search for her replacement.
In addition to searching for a new health commissioner, the mayor is conducting a national search for a permanent police commissioner after the resignation of Darryl De Sousa, who failed to file tax returns. The former local DEA chief Gary Tuggle has been serving as acting chief.
Pugh is also seeking a chief of staff after reassigning Kim Morton to work out problems with city grants. And the job of communications director remains unfilled after the departure of Anthony McCarthy in January. Greg Tucker, a consultant, has been assisting the mayor on communications issues.
The Baltimore Health Department is working to design a system to monitor how many drug treatment slots are available in the city at any moment, a plan that officials say should make it easier to get help for addiction patients.
She’ll start a month later at Planned Parenthood, which provides essential health care to more than 2.4 million women, men and youths through more than 600 health centers across the country.
Wen will become only the second physician to head the 102-year-old organization. She replaces Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards whose background is political.
Chosen after a nationwide search, one Planned Parenthood executive said Wen stood out because of her experience as a doctor on the front lines, her knack for standing up for what she believes in and her life experience as a child in need of health care.
“The thing about Dr. Wen is that she is really the best of all worlds,” said Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood executive vice president.
The outspoken commissioner is known as much for her newspaper op-eds and TV appearances as her role leading the city’s health department.
Wen has frequently criticized the Trump administration for weakening the safety net of the country’s most vulnerable with cuts to public health and other social service programs. She has been outspoken about what she has called rollbacks by the Trump administration to women’s reproductive rights.
The city on Wen’s behalf sued the administration for cutting funds for teen pregnancy prevention. As a result, a federal judge ordered the restoration of $5 million in grant funding to two Baltimore-based teen pregnancy prevention programs.
Wen also fought the Trump administration’s changes to Title X, which would result in cuts to health clinics, including 23 in Baltimore.
She organized thousands of doctors and health professionals against a proposed domestic gag rule that would prohibit federal money from going to centers that perform or refer patients for abortions. She said it would undercut health professionals’ ability to care for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“So many of these politicians believe they rather than women and health professionals should be making decisions about women’s health,” Laguens said. “As a doctor and somebody who believes in science and facts, she is going to be able to take them on.”
In a letter to friends and colleagues, Wen said that she did not expect to leave a job that she loved. But she said there is a serious threat to women’s rights that needs to be addressed.Wen has also tackled many other issues besides women’s rights while at the helm of the health department.
During her tenure, she started a program to provide glasses for schoolchildren and helped push the city’s infant mortality rate to record lows.
Her largest issue by far has been tackling the incessant opioid epidemic that grips many in Baltimore. She issued a blanket prescription so anyone in the city could get naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses. She is often photographed teaching people how to use the drug.
She brokered a deal with hospitals to play a bigger role in finding help for addicts who wind up in their emergency rooms. Wen also led an effort to open a 24-hour stabilization center that would serve as a safe place where drug users can go when they are intoxicated to get medical treatment and links to other social services — rather than go to jail.
A favorite among Maryland lawmakers, Wen was called often to Annapolis and Washington to testify on health issues.
Congressman Elijah Cummings said the news of Wen’s departure was bittersweet — a loss for the city, but a boon for women’s rights. He has experienced the attacks on Planned Parenthood as ranking member of the house committee on government and oversight reform. He believes Wen will be a strong advocate for the organization.
“She can help women in every inch of this country,” said Cummings, who Wen named her son Eli after. “That means a lot.”
Joshua Sharfstein, former state health secretary and Baltimore health commissioner, also said Wen would be a strong advocate for Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of sex education in the country.
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“They are getting someone who is incredibly smart, a fantastic communicator and absolutely committed to people’s access to health care,” he said.
Wen’s persistence sometimes ruffled the feathers of the Hogan Administration, including her unabashed push for more funding to battle the opioid epidemic in Baltimore. The city has more overdose deaths than any other city or county in the state.
Wen is a prodigy who enrolled at Cal State University at age 13 and graduated at 18 with a degree in biochemistry. She attended Washington University in St. Louis for medical school and was a fellow at Harvard. She studied public health at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Before coming to Baltimore, she worked in the emergency room at George Washington University, where she was also a professor. She is known to refer to her experiences as a doctor when talking about health issues.
“I bring a deeply personal experience to this,” Wen said of her new post, “because I see what happens when people can’t access the health care that they need.”