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Dr. Mary Wakefield, director of the Center for Rural Health at UND, was named by President Obama today to be the administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Obama picks UND official for key health care job

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The Obama administration has picked one of UND's own to join its health care team.

Now the head of the Center for Rural Health, Mary K. Wakefield will start a new job March 10 as the head of the Health Resource and Services Administration.

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The $6.85 billion agency is charged with ensuring all Americans have access to some form of health care, particularly the poor, children and pregnant women. It also ensures rural residents have access to quality health care.

"Even in the best of times, these programs were important; now, they're critical," Wakefield said, explaining how excited she is to get the job.

Her first priority, she said, is to disperse the additional $2 billion HRSA will get as part of the economic stimulus package. The second priority, she said, is to help the administration with health care reform.

"I'll be at Warp 7," she said. "I'm not sure my feet will touch the ground."

Wakefield will not have to wait for Senate confirmation because the president can appoint the head of the HRSA directly. She'll report directly to the secretary of health and human services, whoever that person maybe.

Staying in touch

Friday, when the administration officially announced her appointment, Wakefield spent a busy day fielding phone calls from friends, colleagues and national news outlets.

She'd known for a week and a half that she got the job, she said, but wasn't at liberty to say. For weeks before then, her name had been one of many considered for HRSA administrator, she said, explaining the rumors that have floated among some circles in town.

But Wakefield isn't saying farewell anytime soon.

She'll continue to maintain a residence in Grand Forks, where her husband works, and will commute back home as often as her job allows.

"Living in Grand Forks but working in Washington, D.C.," is how she described her plan.

Reaction

Those who have worked with Wakefield applauded her appointment.

"Her ability to shape important parts of health care policy as they affect rural communities -- she could not be in a better place," said Sharon Ericson, chief executive of Northwood, N.D., based Valley Community Health Centers.

The group, which runs a dental clinic in Grand Forks, is one of thousands of health centers nationwide funded by HRSA.

"I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Wakefield for a number of years. I have no doubt that she will do a tremendous job leading HRSA," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., an ally of the administration and Wakefield's former boss.

At one time, Wakefield served as his chief of staff.

The Herald could not reach Wakefield's boss, Joshua Wynne, executive dean of UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences. University President Robert Kelley is out of town.

Qualifications

As the director of the Center for Rural Health the past seven years, Wakefield's job has been to analyze and develop solutions to the challenges of providing health care in sparsely populated parts of the state and the country.

"There's no county in the state that we don't touch; not one," she said.

When Wakefield started in late 2001, the center employed seven and had a budget of a little more than $2 million. Today, it employs more than 40 and has a budget of $6.9 million.

But to leap from such an organization to a major federal agency with a budget in the billions takes a bit more.

Wakefield has long played a role on the national arena.

Her resume includes membership on the Department of Veterans Affairs' Special Medical Advisory Group, the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee, President Clinton's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry, among other positions.

Wakefield said her specialty may be rural health care but her work on national bodies has given her insight on urban issues. More Medicare payments go to urban areas, she said, than rural areas.

She's also served as chief of staff for two U.S. senators, Conrad and his predecessor, Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D.

The local experience will play an important role, though, she said. "One of the things I'll bring to the agency is an on the ground sense of how (HRSA) programs work."

That is, having been on the receiving end of federal grants will inform how she works on giving out those grants.

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