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 Friday.
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.
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 e-mail.
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 programs.
“She is extremely bright and she knows her subject matter backward and forward,” said Maryland 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 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.”
Wen’s vitality and energy will serve her well at Planned Parenthood, Pugh said.
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 are 13 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,” Wen said. “And the cost of all of our political fights is people’s lives.”
Pugh will conduct a national search to replace Wen. Mary Beth Haller, an attorney and deputy commissioner for youth wellness and community health at the health department, will lead the agency in the interim. Haller 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.
“Don’t back down,” Wen said. “You have to be a strong advocate for public health. Because public health doesn’t have a face, except for you.”
She also suggested the next commissioner not only take on immediate issues, such as the opioid epidemic, but also tackle incessant, systemic issues such as the poverty and racism that contribute to health disparities.
Wen will continue to live in Baltimore, but work from Planned Parenthood’s dual headquarters in Washington, D.C., and New York.
The job will involve a lot of travel, which Wen knows will mean time away from her toddler son Eli, who turned 1-year-old in August. But she said the need to advocate around women’s health issues is great.
“It is a huge honor to be able to take on the fight of our time,” she said.