Dr. Leana Wen, who in her nearly four years leading the Baltimore City Health Department became a national figure as she made strides treating the medical crisis of opioid addiction and drew attention to the health issues brought about by long-term poverty, is leaving the department to head up Planned Parenthood.
On Twitter, Wen shared a video shared by Planned Parenthood that documents her life story as the daughter of Chinese immigrants who went on to become an emergency physician and, eventually, the “Doctor for the City” of Baltimore.
— Planned Parenthood (@PPFA) September 12, 2018
In the video, Wen casts her role leading the city’s health department, including the recent experience of suing the Trump administration over cuts to teen pregnancy prevention programs, as part of the larger fight for medical care that she sees as part of her new job.
On Facebook, Wen called helming the Baltimore City Health Department a “dream job” and praised the public servants whose mission it is to “combat disparities and improve health and well-being in Baltimore.”
The chance to lead Planned Parenthood presents more opportunities to champion public healthcare, she said.
“I depended on Planned Parenthood for medical care at various times in my own life, and as a public health leader, I have seen firsthand the lifesaving work it does for our most vulnerable communities. As a doctor, I will ensure we continue to provide high-quality health care, including the full range of reproductive care, and will fight to protect the access of millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood.”
In a statement, Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wen’s last day is Oct. 12, after which the city will conduct a national search for a replacement.
The mayor thanked Wen for her service and touted the changes she’s helped to bring.
“We have made significant progress in addressing issues of health disparity across our City, and in developing innovative approaches for prevention and treatment,” Pugh’s statement said. “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.”
Born in China, Wen and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 8 and settled in Los Angeles. A short five years later, Wen was in college at 13, eventually becoming a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. In her time as a physician, Wen made stops at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and the emergency room at George Washington University.
She said her youth in poor parts of Los Angeles influenced her path to helping people with the greatest need.
“Where I grew up, people chose every day between food and medicine, and shelter and health care,” she told Baltimore Fishbowl shortly after being appointed health commissioner by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2015. “I saw people go without and suffer long-term health consequences. I wanted to be that doctor who could take care of people in their time of greatest vulnerability.”
During her tenure, Wen, 35, broke new ground in how Baltimore–a city that has struggled with heroin usage since before the issue became a national crisis–confronted addiction, opting to treat the issue as a medical problem instead of a criminal one. Among her biggest pushes was to increase the availability of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, throughout the city, making it available over the counter in some pharmacies and offering training to everyday citizens on how to administer it.
The department credits naloxone with saving 1,800 lives since 2015.
The city and state also partnered to create the first stabilization center in Baltimore, connecting people struggling with addiction to necessary services, and under Wen’s guidance, the health department scored hospitals on how they treat overdoses and people dealing with addiction.
She also championed the importance of early child care. Through the B’More Healthy Babies initiative, the city has reduced infant mortality by 38 percent in recent years, the department said.
While assessing many of the problems Baltimore’s children faced, Wen pointed to the ways trauma can affect health outcomes, including mental health. In an op-ed published in The Sun, she wrote Baltimore “must set the expectation to become the national model of recovery and resilience.”
That mindset also informed her advocacy for Safe Streets, a program in several neighborhoods across the city that deploys neighborhood leaders and ex-gang members to interrupt disputes before violent incidents occur, and her decision to call violence a “public health issue.”
In addition to taking on the Trump administration over $5 million in funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, a case she eventually won, Wen’s health department joined partners from other cities in suing the White House for “intentionally sabotaging” the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
In a statement, Wen alluded to the national climate under Trump and characterized her new role as a “fight for healthcare access, for gender equality, and for our core values in support of women, children, families, and vulnerable communities.”
“The cost of taking on this fight is leaving a job I love and colleagues I admire and draw inspiration from every day,” she said. “But at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, it is my obligation to take on this challenge and fight with everything I have.”
This story has been updated.
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