David Scrase to step down as Human Services Department secretary - Albuquerque Journal

David Scrase to step down as Human Services Department secretary

Human Services Secretary David Scrase, left, talks with House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, on the opening day of this year’s 60-day legislative session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office said Friday that Scrase would be stepping down from his job, effective next month. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – David Scrase – who led the state Human Services Department and emerged as the face of New Mexico’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic – is leaving the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and will formally retire next month.

The Governor’s Office confirmed the abrupt departure Friday, saying Scrase is already on leave due to a family emergency. His last official day on the job will be Feb. 24.

The departure of Scrase, one of the governor’s longest-serving and most high-profile Cabinet secretaries, continues a spate of turnovers as she moves into her second term. It also comes at a critical time for the administration, with the 60-day legislative session underway.

In a statement, the Democratic governor thanked Scrase for his service and described him as a “valued member of state leadership” since she took office in 2019.

“What’s more, his work at HSD has benefited hundreds of thousands of low-income New Mexico families, delivering critical supports and services,” Lujan Grisham said, referring to Scrase’s work overseeing the joint federal-state Medicaid program that, among others, provides health coverage to roughly 970,000 state residents.

Scrase is the second Cabinet secretary this week to announce plans to leave the administration. General Services Secretary John Garcia is set to leave Feb. 3 after just over a year on the job.

The leaders of the departments of Finance and Administration, Indian Affairs and Veterans Services have also stepped down over the past several months.

In addition to Cabinet turnover, the Lujan Grisham administration has over the past seven days announced the departures of several other state officials – Victor Reyes, deputy superintendent of regulation and licensing; New Mexico Medicaid Program Director Nicole Comeaux; and Behavioral Health Collaborative Chief Executive Officer Bryce Pittenger.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, called the level of turnover “problematic.”

The state, he pointed out, is on its third public education secretary under Lujan Grisham and its third health secretary – not counting the time Scrase temporarily also led the health agency.

“It’s alarming the number of secretaries who have left during her administration,” Baca told the Journal. “You lose the institutional knowledge every time someone leaves.”

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she was sad to see Scrase leave. But she said turnover isn’t necessarily unusual for Cabinet secretaries serving demanding roles.

“For a second term of a governor, it’s pretty normal” to see some departures, Stewart said. “These are very tough jobs with long hours.”

As for Scrase, she credited him with helping steer New Mexico through the pandemic, saying, “He was a face of calm and reason.”

Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said Scrase did a great job under high pressure, adding she understands his decision to retire.

“I know the governor is a tough boss,” Thomson said, while also saying the governor works hard herself.

‘Not your average’ job

After confirming Scrase’s imminent departure, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor’s first term included “unique challenges outside of our control.”

The governor, she said, is thankful for the service of Cabinet members, and the sacrifices they and their families have made.

“These are not your average ‘9 to 5’ jobs – they require a high level of dedication and come with the highest level of responsibility,” Sackett said Friday. “That said, it is not uncommon that many administrations see turnover after the first term, especially given the extreme demands of Cabinet-level positions.”

Scrase did double duty for much of the past year, simultaneously leading both the Human Services Department and the Department of Health, in the capacity of acting secretary, for nearly a year-and-a-half before Lujan Grisham appointed former Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen to take over the post in December.

In addition to overseeing the state’s Medicaid program, the Human Services Department also monitors other safety-net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, and cash assistance for low-income families.

The agency is currently in the process of issuing a new contract to run the state’s Medicaid program, which will be known as Turquoise Care, with health insurance companies invited to submit bids last fall for contracts that will begin in 2024.

Human Services Department Deputy Secretary Kari Armijo will serve as the agency’s interim leader, given Scrase’s departure, the Governor’s Office said Friday.

New Mexico’s Dr. Fauci

Due to his medical background and prominent Cabinet post, Scrase became a recognizable figure during the pandemic and appeared regularly with the governor at news briefings.

He was described by Lujan Grisham in 2020 as “our very own New Mexico Dr. Fauci” – a reference to former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.

A former health care system executive, a published author and a public speaker, Scrase was the primary physician for the governor’s late parents.

He also continued seeing patients, on a pro bono basis, at least twice a month since the governor picked him to run the Human Services Department after she won election in 2018, though he put that practice on hold during the pandemic.

The only licensed physician in Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet, Scrase said in a 2020 interview that he felt his career had prepared him for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done in my career has kind of prepared me for this moment,” Scrase said at the time.

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