Slemp named interim state health officer

CHARLESTON — After seven years away, Dr. Catherine Slemp is returning to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources as the interim state health officer and director of the Bureau of Public Health.

Slemp’s appointment is also a key cog in the machine at DHHR working to combat that state’s drug abuse crisis.

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch announced Slemp’s appointment in a press release Wednesday. Her appointment is effective as of today.

“Cathy’s prior experience as State Health Officer and her many years with the department offer a unique perspective to hit the ground running on day one,” Crouch said. “I am confident her wealth of experience will serve the public health needs of West Virginia. We are so pleased to welcome Cathy back to DHHR and appreciate her willingness to serve in this interim role.”

According to DHHR, Slemp served as interim state health officer from 2002 to 2011. She started her career at DHHR in 1994, starting as the clinical and program director, then transitioning to DHHR’s Division of Surveillance and Disease Control and later to the Center for Threat Preparedness, where she served nine years as director.

After leaving DHHR in 2011, she worked as a consultant and later as relief and development coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.

She has a medical degree from Duke University School of Medicine, a master’s degree in hygiene and public health from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Princeton University.

As interim state health officer, Slemp will also be director of DHHR’s Bureau of Public Health which oversees the deputy commissioner of public health administration, the deputy commissioner of health protection, and the deputy commissioner of health improvement. She will also manage the Office of Drug Control Policy, which has been without a permenant director since March.

ODCP is currently being run by Nancy Sullivan, Crouch’s special assistant. The first ODCP director served barely five months before leaving in January.

Dr. Michael Brumage, the former executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, stepped in, but lasted 46 days before leaving in March. Another interim director, Susie Mullens, left to take a job in Preston County.

The West Virginia Legislature created ODCP in 2017, which is mandated to develop policies and plans to curb the state’s growing drug abuse problem and be a clearinghouse for statistics on drug and alcohol abuse. The office missed a mandate of July 1 to submit a strategic plan to reduce drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse by 10 percent and another plan to increase the number of beds for treatment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation in 2016. A DHHR report looking at 2016 drug overdose deaths found that those who died between the ages of 15 and 44 were more likely to die from fentanyl or heroin.

Slemp succeeds Dr. Rahul Gupta as state health officer. Gupta left the Bureau of Public Health in September to become the senior vice president and chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes. Gupta was appointed as state health officer in 2015 by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.