Abbott taps Nebraska official to lead Health and Human Services Commission

Courtney Phillips currently leads the Department of Health and Human Services in Nebraska.

Courtney Phillips, Gov. Greg Abbott's newly named pick to head the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Courtney Phillips, Gov. Greg Abbott's newly named pick to head the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.  Office of the Governor

Courtney Phillips is the new executive commissioner for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday.

Phillips is currently the chief executive officer for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. She starts her role as commissioner Oct. 19.

In a Thursday evening news release, Abbott said Phillips’ “vast experience in health and human services makes her the ideal person to fill this role.”

“Tackling the challenges at HHSC will be no small task, but I’m confident that Dr. Phillips’ extensive background will help her lead the department to improve and maintain accountability,” Abbott said.

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The announcement comes nearly three months after Charles Smith, the previous executive commissioner for the health agency, retired from his position. His announced retirement came after weeks of intense scrutiny over how the commission handles contracts. He was considered a longtime ally of Abbott, who picked him to lead the state’s Health and Human Services Commission in 2016 after he worked for Abbott in the attorney general's office.

Phillips will oversee an agency with 60,000 employees and an $80 billion biennial budget — and unlike her predecessor she has a background in health care background. She’s also starting in the wake of the departure of dozens of experienced staff members who say morale plummeted during Smith's time as executive director and that they felt overworked and undervalued. Staffers have pointed out that the institutional brain drain among the programs has also stifled the agency’s work.

Phillips also will be responsible for overhauling how the agency handles contracts. In the last months of Smith’s tenure, state auditors, legislators and Abbott called out the agency over years of error-prone contracts even after years of work to make the onboarding and management process more efficient. In April, Abbott wrote a scathing letter to Smith over contracting failures related to the Children’s Health Insurance Program in rural communities.

The letter and other contracting issues highlighted by state auditors led five employees — including two top state officials overseeing contracting and procurement — to depart the agency. In January, the commission endured the ire of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, after an audit report found the commission allowed a health insurance company to pay $29.6 million in bonus and incentive payments to medical providers' employees, even though those payments were not allowed under the company's contract.