Arkansas health secretary Jose Romero will be replaced by two public health officials

Governor Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday the appointment of two people to replace outgoing Arkansas Health Secretary Jose Romero.

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, chief medical officer for the state Department of Health, will become the department’s director, while Renee Mallory, the department’s chief of staff, will serve as acting health secretary.

The Secretary is a Cabinet-level official who reports to the Governor. The department head reports to the secretary.

Romero, who held both titles, announced last month that he was leaving this week for a position with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His last day of work at the Ministry of Health is today.

The appointments marked the first time that the posts of secretary and director have been awarded to two different people since the post of secretary was created as part of a state government reorganization in 2019.

Health Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said in an email that Mallory “will oversee policy and operations,” while Dillaha “will be in charge of medical, clinical and epidemiological considerations and report to the secretary. “.

“The responsibility of each position corresponds to the technical expertise of each individual,” Hutchinson said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“With the necessary growth of [the Health Department] and Public Health I needed someone with extensive experience for the position of Acting Health Secretary.

“Ms. Mallory began working for the Arkansas Department of Health 33 years ago and has been integral as a leader in several programs that have benefited the state. She has invaluable experience serving state and will be an excellent candidate for acting health secretary.”

Dillaha, meanwhile, “has played an important role in guiding the state through the last two years of the pandemic,” Hutchinson said.

“She has shown her dedication to Arkansas, and I have full confidence that she will continue to lead the state in improving health outcomes with the same dedication.”

The Republican term-limited governor said the interim nature of Mallory’s appointment is because he will step down in January.

“With the short time left in my administration, I wanted to leave the responsibility of appointing a health secretary to the next administration,” he said.

Hutchinson spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers said avoiding a possible Senate confirmation hearing on a permanent appointment, like the one held last year on Romero, ‘wasn’t even a consideration’ by not appointing a new permanent secretary.

“We don’t have a guarantee of a special session, so the first Senate confirmation hearing wouldn’t even take place until January. [during the regular 2023 Legislative session] anyway,” Sowers said.

LAW 2019

Under the Reorganization Act 2019, the Secretary of Health may employ a Director of the Department of Health and “delegate his functions, powers and duties to the Director or other units or staff of the Department of Health as he deems desirable and necessary for the effective and efficient functioning of the department.”

Dr. Nate Smith, the state’s first secretary of health, was director of the department when the reorganization went into effect.

He held both titles until he left the department in 2020 for a job at the CDC.

Dillaha said she understands the health secretary appoints the director “in consultation with the governor.”

She said the director of the health department deals with “the scientific part of public health”, while the secretary is more involved in administration.

“I think it plays to the strengths of Renee Mallory and myself,” Dillaha said.

“Renee is a superb administrator, and my forte is public health science and solving the state’s public health issues.”

In a brief “emergency” meeting, held by videoconference on Thursday, the state Board of Health, which establishes health-related regulations enforced by the Department of Health, unanimously nominated Dillaha as Director and passed a resolution in favor of Mallory’s appointment.

Dillaha and Mallory will officially start their new jobs on Sunday, Mirivel said.

Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he spoke to Hutchinson about the decision to appoint an acting health secretary and thought it was prudent.

“His tenure is, of course, on the final leg here, and with a new administration coming in, I think that was the appropriate move,” he said.

Hickey also said he thought Dillaha’s appointment was a good move.

“She will know what aspects need to be addressed on the health side,” he said. “I think it’s a good fit.”

Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro and chairman of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, said he doesn’t know Mallory very well, but he thinks Dillaha will do a good job.

“She has worked closely with the committee during the pandemic and I look forward to continuing to work with her in a new role,” he said.

He said he looked forward to working with Mallory and continuing the great work the Department of Health has been doing during the pandemic.

In April 2021, complaints from lawmakers unhappy with Romero’s handling of the pandemic led to the Senate Rules Committee’s first confirmation hearing on a gubernatorial nomination in decades.

The committee voted 7-3 to forward confirmation to the full Senate, which then approved it by a 25-8 vote.

Senator Trent Garner, a Republican from El Dorado and a member of the rules committee who voted against confirmation, said he did not know Mallory but was familiar with Dillaha, who he said worked hand in hand in the hand with Romero in implementing “draconian” measures during the pandemic.

If he is able to go through the confirmation process, he said he would put a strict microscope on the qualifications of the Health Ministry leadership.

“I will ask tough, pointed questions about how she would lead in a similar pandemic,” said Garner, who is not running for office this year.

“It’s not bias or anything. I’m going to ask him fair and pointed questions. We can’t have a repeat of some of the covid anti-business policies that have been put in place.”


Dillaha, 66, a doctor by training in internal medicine, infectious diseases and geriatric medicine, has been employed by the Health Department since 2001.

She was appointed chief medical officer in August 2021, adding to her roles as medical director for vaccinations and outbreak response.

Prior to that, she had been a state epidemiologist since March 2020.

His other department positions have included Director of the Center for Health Advancement from August 2005 to June 2010 and Special Advisor to the Director for Strategic Initiatives from June 2010 to April 2013.

Mallory, a 58-year-old registered nurse, started with the department as a nurse inspector for health facility services in 1988.

She served as deputy director of public health programs from 2018 until she was appointed chief of staff in June.

She was nominated by the health secretary of the Tobacco Settlement Commission and the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Board, which was dissolved under a state law passed last year.

The health department, which has local health units across the state, has 2,030 employees in regular positions and an additional 69 “extra help” employees, Mirivel said.

The department’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 is $674 million, nearly half of which is “time-limited federal funding specifically for covid-19 efforts,” it said. she declared.

As director of the health department, Dillaha’s salary will increase by 10%, to $230,249, Mirivel said.

Mallory’s salary will increase by 15%, to $186,221.

Romero’s annual salary was $273,779.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which employed Romero as an assistant professor of pediatrics, paid the salary and was later reimbursed by other entities, UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.

She said 80% of Romero’s time was on contract with the health department, 10.5% with Arkansas Children’s Hospital and 9.5% with the Conway Human Development Center.

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