Dr. Joshua Sharfstein announced Wednesday that he will step down as head of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to join Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Sharfstein made the announcement in a lengthy internal email sent to department staff notifying them that he had accepted a job as associate dean for public health practice and training at the public health school.
“I am excited to join a team of scholars who are working to make the world healthier, safer, and more sustainable,” Sharfstein said in the email. ”The position will allow me to stay involved in my city of Baltimore and my state of Maryland, while engaging with national and global challenges and helping to train a new generation of public health leaders.”
Sharfstein said he will step down in January as a new governor is sworn in.
In his separate role as chairman of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, Sharfstein played a crucial role in the creation of the state’s health insurance exchange, which was dogged from the first day of its launch by a series of technical mishaps. Sharfstein came under a hailstorm of criticism from legislators, consumer groups and others. The state ultimately threw in the towel on the system and has acquired new technology from the Connecticut exchange for this year’s enrollment period.
In his email, Sharfstein acknowledged the difficulties with the rollout of the exchange, noting the experience was “certainly not going to make my highlight reel,” but he expressed pride that 375,000 Marylanders ultimately gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
Sharfstein told staff members that he was proud of a variety of accomplishments during his tenure, saying that the department had transformed the state’s system of health finance, reinvigorated public health programs, expanded treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses and strengthened rules for patient safety.
In an interview Wednesday after the announcement, Sharfstein said, “It’s really important to me that I see through a number of things that are still outstanding, such as the exchange’s re-launch this fall, developing a statewide strategy on overdoses and a few other things.”
It’s unclear whether the new health secretary will automatically take over as chairman of the health exchange board; Sharfstein said he’s not sure.
“One of the advantages of me saying this now is that there’s plenty of time for transition” at the exchange, he said.
Speculation that Sharfstein was stepping down had been sweeping Annapolis for months. In February and in March, Sharfstein had dismissed rumors of his impending resignation in interviews with The Daily Record.
But on Wednesday he acknowledged that he had been talking with Hopkins “for a couple months.”
“It’s hard to say specifically when this came up,” he said. “But when I was thinking about my next steps, I really thought about how the school is just such a tremendous resource and a tremendous place for public health, and it’s right here in Baltimore.”
Sharfstein said staying in the city, where he has lived for the majority of the past 13 years, was of utmost importance.
“From time to time, I have been approached about other opportunities, but I had never really been excited about anything that took me too far away, because I care so much about what we’ve being working on here,” he said.
A pediatrician, Sharfstein said he does not plan to give up his practice after joining Hopkins.
Sharfstein was appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in January 2011. The department includes Medicaid, public health, behavioral health and services for the developmentally disabled, with an annual budget of about $10 billion.
Prior to that, Sharfstein had served as principal deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency’s second highest-ranking position, and he was health commissioner for the city of Baltimore from 2005 to 2009. He is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and a 1999 graduate of the combined residency program in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center.
“Josh Sharfstein has had a distinguished career in public health practice and policy and we are delighted that he is joining the faculty of the Bloomberg School,” said Dean Michael J. Klag. “Josh will bring a wealth of experience and insights that will strengthen the practice, teaching, and research opportunities available to our faculty and students.”