Rural health advocate to assume No. 2 post at HHS

One of the country’s leading rural health advocate will assume the No. 2 position at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Mary Wakefield, who has spent five years overseeing the government’s programs for vulnerable populations at HHS, was tapped Thursday as the department’s acting deputy secretary, according to a release provided first to The Hill.

Wakefield said in an interview Thursday that rural health will continue to be one of her top priorities, as well as reforms to make healthcare delivery more efficient across the board.

She also pledged to focus on “strengthening HHS as an agency.”

Until now, Wakefield has spent five years at the helm of the Health Resources and Services Administration. The agency has an annual budget of more than $10 billion, which runs to fund more than 9,000 sites nationwide.

In a staff-wide letter sent Thursday, HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell praised Wakefield’s ability to lead “through a time of marked transformation."

“She has improved access to health for millions of patients, strengthening America’s health care workforce, and modernized HRSA’s organizational infrastructure,” Burwell wrote. 

A trained nurse, Wakefield will also bring more than a decade of Capitol Hill experience. She is the previous chief of staff to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)

During her tenure at HRSA, she oversaw growth of its community health centers. The centers now serve 22 million patients a year, about 5 million more than when she took the helm. She has also helped grow programs like the National Health Service Corps, which has more than doubled its number of clinicians to 9,200.

Community health — particularly in hard-to-reach, rural areas — has been a top focus for Burwell, who was raised in West Virginia.