Governor Maura Healey has appointed Kate Walsh, the CEO of Boston Medical Center Health System, as secretary of Health and Human Services. The move, announced Friday, fills one of the most influential roles in Healey’s cabinet.
“Kate Walsh is exactly the leader Massachusetts needs for this moment in health care,” Healey said in a statement. “She has a proven track record of delivering results on health equity, affordability and behavioral health, while also addressing social determinants of health like food and housing insecurity. She will bring an innovative and compassionate approach to the office that centers the needs of patients and providers.”
Walsh, who will start her new position on March 1, comes to the role after a 13-year run as the head of Boston Medical Center Health System — one of the longest-serving health system CEOs in the state. She ran not only the 514-bed Boston hospital that serves a large portion of patients on government insurance, but also WellSense Health Plan, formerly BMC HealthNet Plan, which serves a large population of MassHealth patients.
“This is a critical moment for our state, as we continue to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, widening health disparities, skyrocketing healthcare costs and a devastating behavioral health crisis,” Walsh said in a statement. “Together, we will work to advance racial health equity, address affordability, spur innovative solutions to our health care challenges, and ensure that people live healthy lives.”
Dr. Alastair Bell, president of BMC Health System, will serve as Interim CEO when Walsh begins her government tenure. The system said in a statement that he will lead the national search for a new hospital president.
Mary Beckman, who was appointed acting secretary of HHS, will ultimately serve as senior adviser to Walsh.
Walsh’s appointment places her at the helm of the state’s largest single department, which includes over 12 agencies, two soldiers’ homes, and the state’s Medicaid program. With a combined budget of more than $27 billion, the department accounts for over half of the state’s spending, touching on everything from children in protective custody to elder affairs.
Beyond her experience at Boston Medical Center, Walsh’s background includes a wide swath of the industry. She previously served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and held senior leadership positions at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Massachusetts General Hospital, Montefiore Medical Center, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Saint Luke’s – Roosevelt Hospital Center, and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.
Her biography on BMC’s website notes that she is a board member of the American Hospital Association, Boston Public Health Commission, Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, America’s Essential Hospitals, Pine Street Inn, and Yale University.
Walsh earned her bachelor’s degree and a Master of Public Health from Yale University.
Her background will provide solid footing as the state continues to work with a health care sector still struggling in the midst of a pandemic, beset by staffing shortages and financial challenges.
In her role as secretary, Walsh will also sit on the state’s Health Policy Commission, and will have to navigate her ties to the hospital industry while the commission pursues price caps for the highest-priced providers — an effort to constrain health care spending growth.
Her knowledge of the industry won’t mean she will forgo pressing hospitals for change, said Dr. Eric Dickson, CEO of UMass Memorial Health.
“Some people say it’s a win for health care systems, but there will be no pulling the wool over Kate Walsh’s eyes when it comes to health care finance reform,” Dickson said. “She will understand it better than the person sitting across the table. That’s a good thing, given the cost of health care in the state, while at the same time the challenges we have with access in the ER and primary care. She’s the right leader for this time.”
Walsh’s work on equity will also be foundational for what lies ahead. Dickson said Walsh was a champion of health equity “before it was popular.”
Andrew Dreyfus, the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts who has worked with Walsh for more than 25 years, added that Walsh has the experience, knowledge, and trust of people in the community to address health care disparities.
Walsh has spent a lot of time thinking through the problems that surround a person’s health, including housing needs, food insecurity, and transportation. BMC operates a prescription food pantry for patients experiencing food insecurity. On the roof of one of BMC’s buildings, the hospital created its own garden to stock its food pantry with fresh produce.
“That experience and instinct is going to be really important as she thinks statewide about very similar issues,” Dreyfus said.
Under her leadership, BMC also founded the Grayken Center for Addiction, dedicating research and program funding to understanding and solving the opioid epidemic.
Walsh’s appointment comes at a busy time for HHS, as the state recently launched a new “front door” to behavioral health services as part of its reform of mental health care.
Additionally, the state is getting ready to implement a newly awarded waiver from the federal government. The waiver will allow MassHealth to continue the reforms it began five years ago, in which MassHealth sought to change the reimbursement structure for insurers and providers to increase the focus on quality and equity and emphasize primary care and behavioral health care.
WellSense, the BMC insurer, won the majority of the contracts MassHealth recently negotiated as part of its Accountable Care Program, and Walsh will have to navigate providing reimbursements based on quality measures not only to her former insurer but to competing health insurers.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his organization was concerned that Walsh might face pressure from interest groups to expand MassHealth or insurance from the state’s health exchange, and pay for it through an assessment on small businesses.
Hurst noted the Baker administration paid for a shortfall in Medicaid with such an assessment from 2018 to the end of 2019. Small businesses are already struggling under the weight of health care costs, he said.
“Kate is very smart, and she understands, and has been around long enough to know some of the pain that has occurred,” Hurst said. “We want to meet with her and start having a discussion on what the problems are for small businesses.”
Dreyfus said that Walsh is an astute listener, and takes in everyone’s views before offering her own — skills that will serve her well as she balances the needs and interests of the diverse group under HHS.
Dickson added that Walsh is an authentic person and a leader many hospital CEOs in the state look up to and seek out for advice.
“I think this is the biggest win the Healey administration has had yet recruiting somebody of that magnitude,” Dickson said.
The appointment largely rounds out Healey’s cabinet, though a post for veterans services remained outstanding, as well as the new post of housing secretary, a position she had promised to create during her campaign.