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Del. Health Secretary Walker to leave for Nemours job

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Dr. Kara Odom-Walker | Photo c/o State of Delaware

WILMINGTON – Dr. Kara Odom Walker, the leader of the state health department that is still responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, is leaving this summer for a national position with Nemours Children’s Health System, officials announced Tuesday evening.

Walker, who has served as secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) since February 2017, will take the position of senior vice president and chief population health officer at Nemours’ National Office of Policy and Prevention in Washington, D.C. She will start her new role Sept. 1, but will transition out of her current role much earlier.

Details on the reason for Walker’s sudden resignation are sparse, with the governor’s office stating that she seeks to “fulfill a desire to pursue health care policy work at the national level.” According to The News Journal’s database on state employees, Walker earned about $164,000 as the state’s health secretary.

In a statement announcing the move, Gov. John Carney credited Walker with the state’s response to the pandemic that now totals more than 10,000 cases and 400 deaths.

“Kara’s compassionate leadership has been so incredibly important this year, as Delaware has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Her leadership during this difficult time has saved lives, and helped Delaware respond successfully to this disease … Kara’s voice and leadership will be sorely missed in Delaware, but I’m confident she will continue to do great things at Nemours,” he said.

Notably, Carney made the announcement regarding Walker’s departure after Tuesday’s press conference, with the next press conference not scheduled until June 23. When asked about the timing of the announcement, Jonathan Starkey, a governor’s office spokesman, said Tuesday evening that the weekly press conferences are “intended to be informative briefings on the COVID response.”

“We know it’s big news, but we wanted to focus on the COVID response because we’re seeing some people letting their guard down,” Starkey added.

The position in Washington is a return for Walker, who came to DHSS after serving as deputy chief science officer at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization in Washington that is authorized by Congress to improve evidence available to help patients, caregivers, employers, insurers and policymakers make informed health care decisions.

In her own statement, Walker called it an honor to lead the department of her home state, especially as it worked to stem the tide of the pandemic.

“While I know that we advanced many health and social service policies during my tenure, I will always wish that I had more time, because there is more work to address health equity, health care costs and access to care up and down our state, but particularly for vulnerable populations,” she said.

At Nemours, Walker will oversee the National Office’s advocacy and public policy division, as well as all aspects of population health strategy, research, innovation, and implementation. Her scope of responsibility includes advancement of the overall health and well-being of children, both broadly and among the populations served by Nemours.

“For much of the past two years, I have had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Walker to improve the health of children in Delaware,” said Nemours President and CEO Dr. Lawrence Moss in a statement announcing the hire. “This allowed me to appreciate her enormous talent and passion in population health and inspired me to work with her to create this next step in her distinguished career. I am extremely grateful to Governor John Carney for supporting Dr. Walker in this transition and for his ongoing partnership in our shared goal of improving the health and well-being of Delaware’s children.”

While Walker led more than 4,000 workers in the state’s largest agency, she has become less visible to the public amid the pandemic. Dr. Karyl Rattay, the director of the Division of Public Health, a DHSS office tasked with preventing and responding to infectious and communicable diseases, has become an ever-present expert for the public, providing guidance at almost every one of the governor’s twice weekly press conferences.

In replacing Walker, however, Carney turned to Molly Magarik, the current deputy secretary of DHSS. The Delaware Senate is expected to consider Magarik’s nomination later this month.

In his statement, Carney called Magarik “a proven leader, a problem solver, and a committed public servant who has been second-in-command at DHSS for the last three and a half years.”

“As we continue to fight COVID-19, I’m confident Molly will be able to lead this department without missing a beat, while continuing our work to make Delaware a stronger and healthier state,” the governor said.

Magarik, who said that she was “truly humbled and incredibly honored to be nominated,” has served as deputy secretary since February 2017, directing and managing priorities for DHSS, including health care financing, payment and delivery system reform; budget administration and management; and early childhood education. She also served as the department’s chief strategy officer, developing critical partnerships with Delaware cabinet agency leaders, the legislature, the federal delegation, advocates, and health care system leadership throughout the state.

Before joining DHSS, Magarik served as state director for Carney while he served in Congress as well as executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party. She is pursuing a Master’s of Health Care Delivery Science at Dartmouth College and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and government from the University of Delaware. Unlike Walker, she does not hold a medical degree.

By Jacob Owens

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