Local News

State DHHS Secretary Leaving to Take N.Y. Job

Posted May 4, 2007 11:48 a.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2007 2:51 p.m. EDT

— The state's top health official announced Friday she will step down from her public post and become president of a New York-based health research foundation.

Carmen Hooker Odom, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, was hired by Gov. Mike Easley in early 2001 to oversee the department. It is the second largest state government agency in monetary size behind the Department of Public Instruction.

Hooker Odom, 62, said she will step down August 24 and join the Milbank Memorial Fund in October. Her departure marks just the second state Cabinet member to leave since Easley became governor in 2001.

"Accepting this position gives me an unprecedented opportunity to have an impact on the future of critical health care issues across the nation," Hooker Odom said in a written statement.

She said the department "has accomplished so much during the past 6 1/2 years, but I think we have laid a good platform for continued future success in many areas."

The $4.2 billion state agency oversees Medicaid, the government health insurance program for poor children and older adults, as well as the disabled. The department also includes mental health and substance abuse programs and public health initiatives.

Hooker Odom led the department as child health insurance was expanded for low-income families and Medicaid patients gained access to managed care treatment statewide. The state's response to child abuse and neglect reports also improved.

But the department has struggled to implement mental health care reforms during her tenure, and Hooker Odom has been criticized for alleged Medicaid irregularities related to supplemental funding for hospitals. The department recently cut reimbursement rates for certain mental health providers.

Hooker Odom arrived as the state began to retool the mental health system from one that primarily served patients in large state institutions to community programs. The transition slowed amid state budget shortfalls as state mental hospital admissions rose.

Easley, who had not named a replacement, said he was pleased with Hooker Odom's leadership.

"She has handled one of the most challenging jobs in the state with great skill and compassion for all those the department touches," Easley said.

Hooker Odom, a former Massachusetts state lawmaker, moved to North Carolina to join husband Michael Hooker when he became chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hooker died in June 1999, and his wife remarried in 2002 to then-state Sen. Fountain Odom of Mecklenburg County.