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Ex-Raleigh hospital exec is new DHHR secretary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former Raleigh County hospital executive Karen Bowling will have a full plate of assignments when she takes over as chief of West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources in July.

Bowling's appointment as DHHR secretary comes on the heels of a 116-page audit that recommended major changes at the sprawling, 6,000-employee agency. Bowling also will oversee the state's plan to expand Medicaid under President Obama's health-care reform law.

The DHHR also faces a whistleblower lawsuit that has dogged the agency for months. Department attorneys Susan Perry and Jennifer Taylor filed suit in October, contending that they had been subject to illegal reprisals, public humiliation and damage to their reputations for trying to perform their duties by raising concerns about the awarding of a multimillion-dollar advertising contract.

"It's really a crucial juncture for DHHR," said Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee. "This is an opportunity to reform [the] DHHR and its direction. I hope she's up to the task."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin named Bowling as the DHHR's new Cabinet secretary Wednesday.

She replaces former acting secretary Rocco Fucillo, whose tenure was marked by his decision to place Perry and Taylor, along with former DHHR communications director John Law, on administrative reassignment last July. Fucillo later fired Law and Taylor. Perry remains reassigned to duties reviewing Medicaid claim forms.

Fucillo will be reassigned to another job at the DHHR after July 1.

Bowling, former CEO of Raleigh General Hospital, plans to start July 1, provided the Senate confirms her appointment. Senate leaders met with Tomblin Wednesday afternoon to discuss the selection.

"I look forward to working collaboratively with all stakeholders as we move toward the goal of assisting people who need our help," said Bowling, who will make $175,000 a year. During the past legislative session, lawmakers raised the DHHR secretary's salary limit from $95,000 to $175,000.

Ron Stollings, who heads the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, said Wednesday that he wanted Tomblin to appoint a physician with a public health background to the DHHR's top post. Stollings and Perdue said Tomblin didn't consult with them before appointing Bowling, who's a licensed nurse practitioner.

"I just hope she has some public health background," said Stollings, a Boone County doctor. "We have huge public health problems in this state, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

Bowling, a Wyoming County native, spent eight years as CEO of Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley. She resigned abruptly in 2010, citing personal reasons.

The following year, she was hired as health-sciences dean at Mountain State University. The school was shut down in August after losing its accreditation. Bowling also was a professor of nursing at Mountain State.

She previously served as chairwoman of the West Virginia Hospital Association. She volunteers as a family nurse practitioner with Beckley Health Right, a free clinic.

She's currently enrolled in a doctorate in education program through Capella University, an online university based in Minneapolis.

Bowling also has served on the board of directors of Raleigh County Community Action and YMCA of Southern West Virginia.

"Karen's commitment to the health and well-being of her community has been evident throughout her career . . . " Tomblin said in a prepared statement.

West Virginia's last DHHR secretary with a hospital administration background was Patsy Hardy, who worked as CEO of St. Joseph's Hospital in Parkersburg and the former Putnam General Hospital in Hurricane. Former Gov. Joe Manchin named Hardy to head the DHHR in 2009. Hardy stepped down a year later.

Bowling frequently has contributed to the campaigns of Manchin, now a U.S. senator, and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va.

Last month, Tomblin's office released a consultant's audit that found the DHHR had an "unstable work environment." The consultant, Pennsylvania-based Public Works LLC, estimated that West Virginia could gain new revenue or save $56.7 million, if the DHHR followed 78 recommendations outlined in the audit.

The report also took issue with the DHHR's travel spending, which has increased 35 percent during the past two years. Forty percent of the agency's travel budget was spent on trips to training seminars.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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