It's official: Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner David Lakey is leaving his job as the state's public health chief next month to take a new gig with the University of Texas System and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.
The move comes as Gov. Rick Perry — who appointed Lakey — steps aside, and as lawmakers begin to consider consolidating the state's health agencies. Both could've meant big changes for Lakey.
In the joint position, he will serve as the system's associate vice chancellor — and the health science center's senior vice president — for population health. And he will split his time between Austin and Tyler.
Lakey said East Texas has a particularly critical need to improve health outcomes; in his new role, he'll work to improve disease detection and prevention, rather than simply focusing on treating those who are already sick.
"It’s a huge job that we’re giving him that touches on every aspect of our academic mission," said Kirk Calhoun, the president of the health science center.
Calhoun said he began discussing the new position with the commissioner with the knowledge that appointees of Perry — who leaves office this month — might be thinking about their next moves.
While Lakey said he "thoroughly enjoyed" his time at DSHS, he said the new post would allow him to continue his work on public health, pursuing "the same mission, but from a different platform."
Lakey became commissioner of the state's health department in 2007. Previously, he served as chief of infectious disease and medical director of the Center for Pulmonary and Infectious Disease Control at UTHSC-Tyler.
His move comes on the heels of a recommendation by the Sunset Advisory Commision, a panel that includes state lawmakers and periodically reviews state agencies, to consolidate the state’s five health agencies into a single commission. DSHS and four other smaller agencies are currently under the purview of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Under the proposed consolidation plan, the revamped health agency would be under the direction of one executive commissioner. Lakey's position would likely have been demoted from commissioner to "executive officer."
When asked if that factored into his decision, Lakey said, "There is change that’s occurring. That’s in the background. I had discussions with my boss about what it would look like afterwards. There were opportunities there, but I thought it was time to do it a little differently."
Raymond Greenberg, the UT System's executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said that Lakey brings unique experience — as well as helpful national connections that he has developed in his years as the state's health commissioner — to the UT community.
"It’s really unusual to have, in academics, someone who has been on the front lines of public health," Greenberg said.
Calhoun noted that he has worked with Lakey through state crises such as hurricanes, flu outbreaks, an influx of children needing health services on the state's southern border and, most recently, the state's first Ebola cases.
"We could have easily gone into a panic mode, and his demeanor kept us from doing that," Calhoun said. "So this is not speculation on my part that he can do this job and do this very well."
In fact, Lakey was still working at the health science center when Calhoun took over as president in 2002, so the coming change is a reunion of sorts. Calhoun recalled that, in their previous working relationship, Lakey could be a bit of a thorn in his side because of his persistence. Calhoun added that he does not expect that to be an issue moving forward.
"I’ve matured," Calhoun said. "I now realize that you put good people around you, you give them resources, then you get the hell out of the way and you let them do really great things. That’s how I feel about David."
On Tuesday, Lakey sent the following letter to DSHS employees announcing his departure:
It is with very mixed emotions that I announce that I will soon be leaving DSHS to join the Office of Health Affairs at The University of Texas System and to join the leadership team at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. My last day at DSHS will beJanuary 30. At this point, there are still several details to be determined regarding the transition, but I wanted to let you know about my departure directly and as soon as possible.
My time working at DSHS has been incredibly fulfilling. As I’ve said many times before, I have been privileged to be the commissioner of this amazing department. DSHS has wonderful and dedicated employees, and it has been an unbelievable honor to be able to work alongside you. I’ve been blessed with developing many great relationships here as we have truly improved health and well-being in Texas. While I look forward to the opportunities and challenges to be found in my new position, I will always look back fondly at my time at DSHS. The decision to take this position is one that I took very seriously and made after careful deliberation with my family.
UT approached me late last year regarding the position I accepted. Many of you know that prior to joining DSHS on January 2, 2007, I spent eight years at The University of Texas Health Science Center in Tyler, and so this will be a return to familiar territory.
I will have a dual role with UT, working with the UT System as well as with the UT Health Science Center in Tyler. The goal of both positions is to improve population health, especially in East Texas and the areas of most need in our state. In my new position, I will have the opportunity to work on population and public health in a world-class organization that has a research, educational and patient-care mission.
UT has a broad reach across the entire state and beyond. The University of Texas System has six health institutions, which include four current medical schools and two in development, two dental schools, three nursing schools, four biomedical science graduate schools, four schools of health professions as well as schools of biomedical informatics and a school of public health with five regional campuses. The prospect of being able to contribute to their significant health footprint and to have a positive impact on Texas was a call I could not turn down.
We still have another three weeks together, so this is not goodbye. We have a legislative session starting next week, so there is much to prepare before I leave. We have so many talented employees and I’m confident that the transition will go smoothly. Throughout this process I have been in close communication with Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek to ensure DSHS is appropriately supported during this transition and through the session.
Please accept my humble thanks for your support and dedication throughout these past eight years. The state of Texas is in good hands with you, as you work toward the vision of a healthy Texas.