Gov. Larry Hogan's health secretary has left his job for what was described as "opportunities in the private sector," the governor's office announced Thursday.
Van T. Mitchell, a former lobbyist and Democratic state delegate, had led the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene since Hogan was inaugurated almost two years ago.
His department has faced intense scrutiny this year. State mental health facilities do not have enough beds to treat dangerous patients with mental illness, and assaults on some workers have risen — an increase a state employee union blamed on understaffing and inadequate training.
Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Mitchell's departure had nothing to do with problems in the department and that he left "in order to pursue opportunities in the private sector."
A department spokesman did not return calls seeking comment. Mitchell also could not be reached for comment.
Hogan, a Republican, praised the former health secretary's "steadfast service." Mitchell also served as deputy health secretary under Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Hogan chose his secretary of appointments, Dennis Schrader, to take over the health department. The department, which has an annual budget of $12.7 billion, runs several public health facilities, regulates the health care industry and oversees services for people with developmental disabilities.
Officials say 90 percent of patients in state health department facilities are referred by the criminal justice system, up from 38 percent 15 years ago. The union that represents hospital staff says that increase has contributed to creating a more dangerous work environment.
Staff at the Springfield Hospital Center told The Baltimore Sun they were trapped in an office for about five hours early Thanksgiving morning as patients rioted around them. Two staff members were injured, according to a department spokesman.
Mitchell signed a report delivered to the General Assembly last month that said the department is "currently addressing providing police and security with the right equipment and training them to implement best practices."
The report also said officials at six of the department's seven psychiatric facilities said they need more security personnel, though it's difficult to attract applicants for the positions and turnover is high.
Hogan announced that Chris Cavey, deputy appointments secretary, would replace Schrader as appointments secretary, a position that oversees hundreds of appointments to public offices across the state each year.
Schrader's appointment must be confirmed by the Maryland Senate.
The governor also announced that Sean Powell, head of the state's Department of Assessments and Taxation, will become one of his deputy chiefs of staff. Powell will replace Roy McGrath, one of Hogan's three deputy chiefs of staff.
McGrath is leaving for a "soon-to-be-announced position," the administration said in a news release.