Newsom Names Pediatrician as California HHS Secretary

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Mark Ghaly
Mark Ghaly’s appointment as secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency must be approved by the California State Senate. Photo: Safe and Just.

A physician with expertise in health care delivery and community outcomes will soon take the helm of the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS). On March 6, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the appointment of Mark Ghaly, MD, MPH, as the agency’s next secretary. Ghaly is a practicing pediatrician and director of health and social impact for the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office.

In a press release, Newsom praised Ghaly’s “deep knowledge and understanding of how individual and community health outcomes intersect with policy and law on issues like whole-person care, mental health, and stage-of-life care.” Ghaly will play a pivotal role in the administration, helpingEssential Coverage Newsom advance a health care agenda that prioritizes increasing access to health coverage for undocumented adults and restraining health care costs, including drug prices.

“At a time when the Trump administration is systematically dismantling health care protections for American families, California is moving forward on ideas to cover more people and make health care more affordable,” said Newsom. Ghaly’s appointment as CHHS secretary requires California State Senate confirmation.

Ghaly has worked for LA County since 2011, serving as deputy director of the Department of Health Services (DHS) for seven years before moving into his current position. As deputy director, he oversaw implementation of the My Health LA program, which provides low-income residents with free health care regardless of immigration status. To qualify, participants must earn less than 138% of the federal poverty level (annual income of $16,764 for a single adult) and be ineligible for Medi-Cal and subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Ghaly previously served as medical director at Southeast Health Center, a San Francisco Department of Public Health clinic in the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point community.

An Integration Specialist

POLITICO Pro’s Angela Hart reported (subscription required) that Ghaly was chosen, in part, for his work on integrating behavioral and physical health care. Ann O’Leary, Newsom’s chief of staff, told Hart, “Dr. Mark Ghaly is someone who . . . has really looked at the integration of mental health care and physical health care and really deeply understands what Governor Newsom is trying to work on.” While working at LA County DHS, Ghaly oversaw the transition of medical and mental health care from county jails to his agency. Previously, it was divided between the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Mental Health.

“The driver was to have one integrated health system for jails,” Ghaly told FUSE Corps, a national nonprofit that places experienced outside experts in local government agencies to delve into solutions to important community issues. “The idea was that, if a single department was responsible for patients, we would deliver better care and do it more efficiently.” Watch this video to get a behind-the-scenes look at the doctors who work in LA County jails.

In 2018, Anna Gorman, of Kaiser Health News, reported on the progress of the jail health transition, noting that improving care for LA County jail population is extraordinarily challenging: “Nearly half of all inmates have at least one chronic disease, including about 450 who have HIV and 900 with diabetes. About two-thirds of inmates are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and about a quarter have serious mental illnesses.” The average stay for inmates in LA County jails is 60 days, and county officials try to use this critical time to help inmates manage their chronic diseases, get mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and refer patients with more serious physical or behavioral health issues to specialists.

As secretary of CHHS, the state’s largest agency, Ghaly will leverage his local government experience in efforts to increase access to health care for underserved populations and advance whole-person care. CHHS operates on a budget of $142 billion and employs 33,000 people. “Mark’s experience, passion, and vision will be instrumental in driving California to a healthier future,” Newsom said.

Ghaly is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and earned a master’s degree in health policy from the Harvard School of Public Health. He completed his undergraduate work at Brown University and his residency in pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

Which health care issue do you think Ghaly should prioritize as CHHS secretary? Tweet at me with #EssentialCoverage or email me.