Courtney Phillips.jpg

Courtney Phillips

The leader of Texas' health agency will become the next secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health in April, replacing former Secretary Rebekah Gee as the head of Louisiana's largest state agency. 

Courtney Phillips, currently the executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, accepted an offer by Gov. John Bel Edwards to become Louisiana's health secretary, the governor confirmed Wednesday afternoon. 

Edwards noted Phillips is a Louisiana native with professional ties to the state, after working for the Louisiana Department of Health during then-Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration. 

"I have tremendous confidence in Courtney," Edwards told reporters following a press conference in Baton Rouge. "She’s somebody I've known for a long time and I feel really good about her leadership in that position, what she’s going to be able to do for the state of Louisiana, really, to continue the momentum that we have." 

Edwards said she will be paid $250,000, tying her with Kimberly Robinson, the revenue department's leader, as the highest-paid cabinet leader in the state. She made $290,000 in Texas, Edwards said, adding, "That’s why it’s good to have somebody coming home because I guess that’s worth something." 

Gee made $236,000 per year.

As executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services, Phillips administers more than 220 programs with 40,000 employees and operates a $78.5 billion budget – more than twice the size of Louisiana’s entire $32 billion state operating budget.

In her resignation letter Tuesday to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Phillips wrote: “Consideration of my own family played a pivotal role in my decision to return home.”

She said leaving the Texas post was not an easy decision. “Yet, as a mother, I want to ensure my greatest blessing, my son, has the best foundation for his continued growth and success – a place surrounded with family and loved ones is key in his remaining elementary years,” Phillips wrote.

Louisiana's health department has an annual budget of about $15 billion and employs about 6,300 people, making it the largest agency in state government. Most of that money – about $10.6 billion – comes from the federal government. Staffing at the agency fell from about 12,000 employees at the start of Jindal's tenure to 5,502 at the end. 

Phillips' strength is administration whereas Gee, a physician, focused more on policy, according to people close to the move.  

"I could not be more excited about Courtney Phillips becoming our new Secretary of Health," Gee said on Twitter. "There is not a person more qualified in our nation for this role and she will serve with distinction and has passion about the populations we serve." 

Phillips served in Louisiana's health department for a dozen years, most recently as deputy secretary in Jindal's administration, giving her the second-highest post at the agency then called Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Before that, she served as chief of staff at the agency for the previous two years. Phillips left Louisiana in April 2015 to run Nebraska's health department, and Abbott then named Phillips to run the Texas health department in October 2018.

Phillips holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and a Masters of Public Administration from LSU. She received a doctorate in Public Policy from Southern University in Baton Rouge. 

Gee stepped down last month as LDH secretary, and the agency's longtime executive counsel Stephen Russo stepped up as interim head. The new leader will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court in a highly-anticipated abortion case that could have wide-ranging implications on abortion rights across the country. LDH is currently also without a permanent Medicaid director after the previous head of the program, Jen Steele, left her position in December. 

Gee oversaw a dramatic expansion of Medicaid that gave health coverage to nearly half a million people, and also faced intense criticism from Republican lawmakers for her administration of the program. 

State Rep. Tony Bacala, one of the most vocal Republican critics of the health agency under Gee, said Wednesday he knows little about Phillips but is eager to work with her. 

“I just hope that they put a great emphasis on accountability of taxpayer dollars," said Bacala, R-Prairieville. "I think that’s what we should expect of an agency that makes up such a big portion of the state budget.”

Gee's departure was one of two cabinet-level leadership changes to start Edwards' second term, after the head of Louisiana's National Guard retired in December.

Phillips will take over the health department as a multi-billion dollar procurement process for the next round of Medicaid managed care contracts are in the midst of a months-long appeals process that could head to court in the coming months. The contracts, which are awarded to a handful of companies to handle care for about 1.5 million Louisiana residents, are among the largest in state government. 

The health department's awarding of the contracts to four companies was recently tossed by the state procurement officer, and LDH appealed the decision to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who has until mid-March to make a decision. The next avenue is district court, where the dispute will likely end up. 

Once tapped by Edwards, cabinet secretaries must be confirmed by the state Senate after a recommendation by the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com