Planned Parenthood Picks Baltimore Health Commissioner for New Leader

by | September 14, 2018

By Andrea K. McDaniels

After four years as the Baltimore health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen is stepping down to take a job as the new head of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

It is the first time in nearly 50 years that a physician will head the organization, which serves the health needs of women and fights for their reproductive rights, its leaders said in a statement announcing her new position.

"Today is a historic day for Planned Parenthood and the millions of people it serves," Naomi Aberly, chair of Planned Parenthood Federation of America's board of directors, said in a statement.

She called Wen a dynamic public health leader who was chosen by the board "after considering some truly formidable women."

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's first day at Planned Parenthood will be Nov. 12 and her last day at the city's health department Oct. 12.

"A core principle in public health is to go where the need is," Wen said in a statement. "The single biggest public health catastrophe of our time is the threat to women's health and the health of our most vulnerable communities."

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.

Mayor Catherine Pugh accepted Wen's resignation Tuesday and Wen told health department staff in a conference call Wednesday.

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.

"At this time in our nation's history, there is one need that rises above all: the need to protect women's health and the health of the most vulnerable communities," she said. "Planned Parenthood has done more for women's health than any other organization. Yet, it is under daily assault from all three branches of government, and the consequence is the loss of hundreds of safety-net clinics around the country, the degradation of women's rights, the distortion of the medical profession, and the cost of women's lives."

Wen also tackled many other issues 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. 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 often called to Washington or Annapolis, the state capital, to testify on health issues.

Congressman Elijah Cummings said in a statement that Wen would be "sorely missed" by Baltimore, but lauded her appointment as a win for Planned Parenthood.

"I believe she is immensely qualified to lead this outstanding organization, which has provided women with first-rate healthcare for more than a century," he said.

Wen's persistence sometimes ruffled the feathers of Gov. Larry Hogan's 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 California State University, Los Angeles 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 was known to refer to her experiences there when talking about health issues.

(c)2018 The Baltimore Sun