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Wen takes helm of Planned Parenthood amid unprecedented challenges

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen has been named the new president of Planned Parenthood.

Wen, an emergency room physician by training, has led the city health department since 2015 and has been a leading figure in the fight in Maryland to combat opioid abuse. She takes over the national leadership of an organization whose roles in providing aid for women on family planning issues and as an abortion provider face unprecedented legal and political challenges.

“Under the leadership of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and then Mayor Catherine Pugh, I’ve served with the most dedicated public servants I’ve ever known, joined in a common mission to combat disparities and improve health and well-being in Baltimore,” she said in a statement. “Together, we have accomplished so much: We’ve saved nearly 3,000 lives from opioid overdose; reduced infant mortality to record lows; provided glasses for all children who need them; treated violence and racism as public health crises; and convened all sectors to improve community well-being.”

Wen’s last day with the city will be Oct. 12 and her first day with Planned Parenthood will be Nov. 12.

Mayor Catherine Pugh praised Wen’s efforts with the city health department and said her office would begin a national search to find a replacement.

“I am grateful to Dr. Leana Wen for her many contributions to improving the health and well-being of all Baltimoreans as health commissioner since 2015,” Pugh said in a statement. “We have made significant progress in addressing issues of health disparity across our city, and in developing innovative approaches for prevention and treatment.  Dr. Wen has achieved national leadership on a broad range of public health issues, which has also led to national recognition for the Baltimore Health Department as among the most impactful in improving health outcomes for citizens of all ages.”

Wen has been a leading public health voice in the city advocating for city, state and national solutions for issues including the opioid crisis, women’s health, access to healthy food and encouraging workers to stay active.

This year, Wen’s department joined a federal lawsuit seeking to restore federal funding for a teen pregnancy education program that has reduced teen birth rates. She also joined the fight against a federal change to Title X that could keep clinics that provide abortions or refer women to clinics that provide abortions from receiving federal funding.

While that change will become a focus for Wen at her new job, much of her time ins Baltimore was spent on the opioid crisis, looking for solutions to the problem whether they were socially acceptable or represented some outside-the-box thinking.

Among her initiatives on the effort, she wrote a blanket prescription for the opioid-reversing drug naloxone in the city, made plans to open an emergency room for addiction and worked with the city’s hospitals to create best practices for treating substance abuse.

Wen also emphasized treating addiction as a disease, just like many other chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart problems. She spoke about destigmatizing addiction as a moral failing on the part of those with opioid use disorders.

Other focuses for Wen at the health department included efforts to reduce violence in the city, curtail infant mortality and help seniors with falls.

She also became active in efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act from efforts at the federal level to change the landmark insurance law. She helped lead the city in a lawsuit against the Trump Administration alleging it has “sabotaged” the health law.

At Planned Parenthood, Wen will face a more specific challenge in focusing on women’s health.

“A core principle in public health is to go where the need is,” Wen said in a statement. “The single biggest public health catastrophe of our time is the threat to women’s health and the health of our most vulnerable communities.”

At Planned Parenthood, Wen will become the first president in more than 50 years to be a physician. She replaces Cecile Richards, who served as president for 12 years.

She takes on the position at a time when abortion rights are under more scrutiny than they have been in years. Under the Trump administration, pro-life advocates are seeking to cut federal funding for abortion clinics and to institute a gag rule that would prevent federal funds from going toward doctors who even discuss abortion with their patients.

Abortion rights have also been at issue in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, with key votes like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska reportedly hinging in part on whether he believes Roe v. Wade, the high court ruling that established a right to abortion, is settled law.

In addition to its leading role on abortion rights, Planned Parenthood is also a valued source of health care for millions of poor Americans. The organization operates more than 600 health centers across the country serving women and men. But threats to cut state and federal funding over abortions threaten many of these clinics.

“I couldn’t be prouder to welcome (Wen) as the new president of (Planned Parenthood),” Richards said on Twitter. “She has dedicated her career to fighting for health care for all, both as a doctor and as a public health leader in the city of Baltimore. I know she’ll be a champion for Planned Parenthood patients and for women, men, and young people everywhere.”

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