New DPH commissioner: ‘I’m a doctor at heart’

Dr. Jewel Mullen, who was introduced today as Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s nominee as commissioner of public health, is a primary-care doctor whose focus widened over 30 years from treating individual patients to the broader challenge of shaping systems of delivering care.

mullen and malloy

Dr. Jewel Mullen, Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s choice to head the state Department of Public Health

“After a point, you understand it’s not just what’s happening in the patient’s life that needs to change…but everything around them that affects their health. There is a bigger system to influence than just the one on one,” Mullen said. “And I love taking care of patients. I’m a doctor at heart.”

Mullen, 55, who has graduate degrees in public health and public administration from Yale and Harvard, is Malloy’s choice to  cut health costs through prevention and closer ties between community health clinics and general hospitals.

“She’s a practitioner, a teacher, a community leader, and she has first hand experience with neighborhood-based health delivery, as well as managing a large department within the Massachusetts Department of Public Health,” Malloy said. “Her experience fits well with our vision.”

Mullen joined the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick three years ago and now directs the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. She is the former medical director of the Baystate Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center in Springfield.

“I just stopped doing patient care two years ago,” Mullen said. “Even as a medical director, if you are asking people to do things, you need to be working along side them.”

She is a backer of universal health care, and was one of more than 300 physicians who signed a strongly worded letter about health care reform in November 2005 to then-Gov. Mitt Romney and legislative leaders in Massachusetts.

“We urge you to abandon your ill-conceived proposals for health care reform and to adopt, instead, a single payer program of universal coverage for the Commonwealth,” it said.

Mullen said she believed her position put her in the mainstream of physicians. She also said she viewed a single-payer system as a goal, not something likely to happen soon.

“Incrementally, whether we ever get there in the U.S., I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not what we have.”

Mullen did not discuss in detail the state’s initial steps toward health-care reform, a program called SusitiNet, which created a process to reform health care as opposed to actually forcing change. She said she viewed SustiNet as she does all such efforts — as a start toward something bigger.

“I haven’t seen anything, anywhere in our country that is a prefect solution to getting coverage for the un- and under-insured. That would be my first comment about SustiNet,” Mullen said.

As the commissioner, Mullen said, she will have no direct role in the continuing debate over how to broaden health-care coverage, other than proposing minimum standards of preventive care. “On the public health side, our contribution has to be to say, in prevention, what should be covered,” she said.

Mullen said she can be contribute with policies that will prevent chronic disease, which will improve health and save money. The goal, she said, is make the parts of the system work together.

“So rather than see it as a debate, I think we really have to get to the understanding of how it all fits together,” Mullen said. “And if we do that the right way, then maybe some of the debate will go away, because I know a lot of the debate comes from worrying about the cost.”

Mullen declined extensive comment on Connecticut’s history of using tobacco settlement funds to help balance the state budget, rather than promote public health and fight smoking among children. But she intends to pursue additional funds available through the Centers for Disease Control.

She praised Connecticut’s efforts to improve school nutrition, saying that she borrowed from the state’s regulations in devising policies in Massachusetts. Mullen said good public health officials always on the hunt for what works.

“What I have learned interacting with colleagues from other countries is that we learn from one another. It’s like a team, where you have different players, different people have different strengths,” Mullen said.

Malloy, who criticized how Connecticut has used the tobacco funds, said he will look to Mullen to lead the public-health effort to combat lead poisoning, smoking by children and the trend toward obesity and incidence of diabetes.

“She has a pretty big mission on a public information basis and a preventative basis to fulfill,” Malloy said. “It’s one of the reasons I was attracted to her candidacy.”

Mullen, whose selection became public Friday, is the fourth department head named by Malloy. She is the second woman and second African-American to accept a top-level job in the new administration.

The new job will end a career of commuting.

Until this year, Mullen and her husband, Dr. Herbert Knight, lived in Glastonbury. She drove to jobs in Springfield and then Boston, while he commuted to New Haven, where he is the chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Hospital of St. Raphael. They now live in Guilford.

They met in New York, while he was a medical resident and she was a medical student. In addition to her graduate degrees at Yale and Harvard, she has a bachelor degree from Yale and a medical degree from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

She has served on the medical-school faculties at New York University, the University of Virginia, Yale and Tufts.

The mother of two college students, Mullen said she has balanced home and profession with what she called a non-linear career. “I’ve managed to be able to put it together,” Mullen said. “There are ways that you can continue to build [a career] without a totally linear process and without having to abandon everything that makes you a whole person.”

Mullen said that at age 55, she believe she has a long career ahead: “My grandmother is going to be a 104 next year, so I’m hoping that I’m only sort of half way through.”