Head of North Carolina health department stepping down

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 1, 2021

By Tom Foreman Jr.
Associated Press

WINSTON-SALEM — Dr. Mandy Cohen, the head of North Carolina’s health department and face of regular updates on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state for two years, is stepping down from her post, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday.

“Dr. Cohen, North Carolinians owe you a deep debt of gratitude,” Cooper said during Tuesday’s briefing by the state Coronavirus Task Force. “You have been such a blessing to our state.”

According to the news release, Cohen plans to spend more time with her family while exploring new opportunities to carry on her work to improve the state’s health and well-being. The news release didn’t elaborate, and Cohen would only say “a bit of rest and recovery” was in store for her next, calling the past two years “quite a marathon.”

She said she discussed her departure with Cooper several weeks ago.

“While it’s hard to step away, it’s the right time for me, personally, and the right time for our team,” Cohen said during the task force briefing. “It has been an honor of a lifetime to serve this state at such an important moment in history.”

Cohen said she had no plans to run for public office, as some had speculated upon word of her departure. She said she hoped her next steps would keep her and her family in North Carolina, and she would be looking at a range of opportunities.

Cooper appointed Cohen, an internal medicine physician, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in January 2017. She led North Carolina’s response to COVID-19 and served as the governor’s chief adviser and strategist on overcoming the pandemic.

Before taking over at the agency, Cohen was chief operating officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Beyond her role carrying out North Carolina’s COVID-19 response, Cohen became the governor’s chief lobbyist for Medicaid, the state’s $18 billion program that provides health coverage to roughly 2.5 million people.

From the very beginning as secretary, Cohen pressed, albeit unsuccessfully, for Cooper’s goal to expand Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands of additional low-income adults through the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Republicans in charge of the legislature remain divided over the idea. But repeated talks with longtime expansion opponent Senate Leader Phil Berger in part played a role in Berger’s willingness this year to consider enacting expansion as part of negotiating with Cooper over a state budget.

In a statement, Berger credited Cohen with getting the state through the pandemic.

“Secretary Cohen’s leadership throughout her tenure at the DHHS has helped our state navigate turbulent times,” Berger said. “She made herself available to legislators to answer questions and kept us informed about issues facing the department. She was also instrumental in successfully implementing Medicaid transformation. I want to thank her for her service to the state and wish her well in her future endeavors.”

In July, Cohen’s agency also began carrying out a legislative mandate to shift two-thirds of Medicaid recipients from a traditional fee-for-service program to one that relies on managed care to improve health outcomes and control costs.

Kody Kinsley, chief deputy secretary for health at the department and lead for COVID-19 operations, will replace Cohen on Jan. 1, 2022, the news release said.

Cooper’s office said Kinsley, a Wilmington native, would be the first openly gay Cabinet member in state government history. He is subject to a conformation vote by the state Senate, and all but one of Cooper’s Cabinet choices have been approved by the Senate since he took office in early 2017.