Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Wednesday that he is hiring the leader of Texas' health agency to be the new secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, the state's largest cabinet department with a multibillion-dollar budget.
Courtney Phillips, who has led the Texas Health and Human Services Commission since October 2018, will start her new job in Louisiana in April, according to the Democratic governor's office statement announcing the hire. The department accounts for nearly half of the state's total annual spending.
"Courtney is a proven leader with a can-do attitude and passion for improving health outcomes and making a difference in the lives of others. Her experience as the head of one of the country's largest health departments is invaluable, and we're excited to welcome her back to Louisiana," Edwards said.
The move is a return home for Phillips, a Louisiana native who worked in various roles at the state health department for 12 years during the administrations of former Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal, including as a one-time chief of staff and deputy secretary for the agency. She left Louisiana to lead Nebraska's state health agency for more than three years before heading to Texas.
Phillips follows Rebekah Gee, a medical doctor who led the Louisiana Department of Health during Edwards' first four years in office, spearheading the launch of the state's Medicaid expansion program. Gee resigned at the end of January. Stephen Russo, the health department's executive counsel, has worked as interim secretary since Gee's departure.
"I could not be more excited about Courtney Phillips becoming our new Secretary of Health," Gee said Wednesday on Twitter. "There is not a person more qualified in our nation for this role, and she will serve with distinction and has passion about the populations we serve."
Gee was a lightning rod for Republicans, who criticized her management of the Medicaid program, particularly the addition of nearly a half million people to its rolls under the expansion initiative championed by the governor. GOP lawmakers criticized spending levels and questioned whether Gee did enough to respond to audits that found waste and misspending.
Phillips will inherit that scrutiny into a budget that has grown under Edwards to $15 billion. She'll oversee more than 6,000 employees. And she'll take over the health department in the middle of a dispute over $21 billion in Medicaid contracts for private companies to manage the health services of 1.5 million people in the program. The three-year contract awards have been thrown out amid claims the health department didn't follow the law or its own evaluation and bid guidelines in choosing the contractors; that decision is being appealed.
The Louisiana health department is significantly smaller than the agency Phillips managed in Texas, which has more than 40,000 workers and a $78 billion budget. She worked for a Republican governor in Texas, Greg Abbott, who opposed Medicaid expansion.
Phillips will be paid $250,000 a year, according to Edwards' office, a salary that ties her with Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson as the governor's highest-paid cabinet secretaries. Gee earned $236,000 in the job.