Laura Gerald and Jeff Engel
Laura Gerald and Jeff Engel
Laura Gerald and Jeff Engel
Laura Gerald and Jeff Engel

More changes are coming at the top of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services in the wake of the departure of Secretary of Health and Human Services Lanier Cansler.

Cansler announced he would be stepping down from his post nearly two weeks ago. Now other leaders in the Department will be switching chairs.

Current State Health Director, Dr. Jeff Engel, will move to the Office of the Secretary as a special advisor on health policy to the incoming HHS Secretary Al Delia.  Delia is currently Governor Bev Perdue’s chief of public policy and starts his new job in February.

Taking Engel’s place at the helm of the Division of Public Health will be pediatrician Dr. Laura Gerald, a former executive director of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund who most recently chaired the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force.

“It was a surprise, but a welcome one,” said Gerald, who was reached on her cell  phone outside jury duty. “But I’m ready to hit the ground running.”

The Lumberton native said she intends to continue the Division of Public Health’s focus on the current work of prevention and access to care.

“From my background and the work I’ve done professionally, I’m particularly oriented to rural communities and underserved populations,” Gerald said. “I hope to be able in this position to improve conditions for those who are in our most needy communities.”

Meg Molloy, head of NC Prevention Partners, said the moves at the top of DHHS are simply moving around talented people into new positions. Both Engel and Gerald serve on the board of the organization, that’s focused on helping reduce tobacco use and obesity in North Carolina.

“We’re fortunate as a state to have such good public health servants,” Molloy said.  “We’ve made a lot of progress… but there’s a tight economy and we understand the need to consolidate and economize at DHHS.”

North Carolina has climbed in the UnitedHealth Foundation state rankings of health indicators from 40th in the nation in 2004 to 32nd last year.

Secretary Cansler leaves at a sensitive time for Health and Human Services. For months, Republican legislators in the General Assembly have tussled with Gov. Perdue over the status of a Medicaid budget shortfall now totaling more than $149 million. Cansler has said that if the governor and legislators do not resolve their disagreement over who has the authority move money to cover the shortfall, Medicaid will run out of money sometime in mid-May.

Cansler also leaves under a cloud due to his relationship with Computer Services Corp., a DHHS contractor working on information technology projects for the Department that is now years behind schedule and several hundred million dollars over budget. Before assuming the position as Secretary of HHS, Cansler was the lobbyist for the company.

A recent audit by state auditor Beth Wood criticized Computer Services Corp. over it’s performance on the DHHS project and excoriated DHHS leadership for it’s poor oversight of the project.

Cansler called the audit’s criticisms “ill-informed, negative and unfounded.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...