Pubdate: Fri, 05 Dec 2014
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2014 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Yvonne Wenger
Page: 1


Dr. Leana S. Wen Appointed Health Commissioner, Will Focus on Substance Abuse

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 today. 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 TheBaltimore 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 that 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 ways 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."

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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom