Leader of Texas’ health department leaving after a year for Louisiana job

Courtney Phillips is leaving the state Health and Human Services Commission to take a job as Louisiana's new secretary of the Department of Health.

Courtney Phillips heads the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with information from Phillips' resignation letter.

The head of Texas’ massive health and human services agency is stepping down after just over a year on the job to lead Louisiana’s health agency.

Courtney Phillips, tapped by Gov. Greg Abbott in October 2018 to lead the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, will leave her post March 13 to become secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health.

Phillips has close ties to Texas’ neighbor to the east; she spent 12 years at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and she holds three degrees from universities in Louisiana.

"Upon deep reflection, I have decided to return to my home state to serve as Louisiana's Secretary of Health and be closer to my family and loved ones," she wrote in a resignation letter to Abbott on Wednesday.

In Texas, Phillips oversaw the publication of an ambitious strategic plan for the 40,000-employee, $38 billion-per-year health and human services system. It laid out 72 goals for the agency to achieve over the course of a year, including increasing women in Medicaid’s use of long-acting, reversible contraceptives by 10% and decreasing repeat emergency room visits for children in Medicaid with chronic asthma by 15%. Phillips will not be around to see whether the agency meets its goals.

Phillips’ long resume in health and human services policy immediately differentiated her from her predecessor, Charles Smith, a longtime Abbott ally who retired amid a contracting scandal that resulted in several high-profile firings. But she did not escape contracting scrutiny. The Health and Human Services Commission is tied up in a lawsuit over its handling of a multibillion-dollar awards to health insurance companies to run Medicaid’s STAR+PLUS program for elderly, blind and disabled Texans.

(Watch video below of Phillips talking about the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the next decade. The speech is part of a Tribune series on the next 10 years of Texas.)

Before coming to Texas, Phillips was the chief executive officer of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for three years.

In Texas, she was in charge of overseeing health care services for needy Texans while implementing policies championed by a conservative governor who for six years has vehemently opposed expanding health coverage to more Texans living in poverty. The state has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country.

Phillips’ agency last month entered into an agreement with the Trump administration to restore federal funding to the state’s controversial women’s health program — funding that stopped when Texas kicked Planned Parenthood out of the program in 2011 for its affiliation with abortion services. Experts said the arrangement, the first of its kind in the nation, could pave the way for other conservative states to defund Planned Parenthood without repercussion from the federal government — a reversal of Obama administration policy.

In Louisiana, Phillips will lead a smaller agency with an operating budget less than half the size of Texas’. She will also work in a significantly different political environment, under a Democratic governor who expanded Medicaid coverage to the poor.

News editor Rebekah Allen contributed reporting.

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