Pima Health Dep't director Cullen tapped by Hobbs to lead ADHS
Incoming Democratic governor picks PCHD director to head Arizona Dep't of Health Services
Governor-elect Katie Hobbs tapped Dr. Theresa Cullen, Pima County's health director, to lead the Arizona Department of Health Services. Cullen and four others were named as part of the incoming cabinet on Tuesday, with Hobbs saying they’re “some of the best minds Arizona has to offer.”
Cullen had been at the helm of the Pima County Health Department throughout most of COVID-19 pandemic, having taken over in June 2020, and has a long and distinguished career in public health service.
She’ll step in at ADHS to take over for Don Herrington, who has been the interim director since Aug. 26, 2021, shortly after Dr. Cara Christ left to work for Blue Cross Blue Shield. Christ made her exit at a time when Gov. Doug Ducey held his stance against a statewide mask mandate despite CDC recommendations to mask and rising COVID case numbers.
Hobbs announced her first cabinet picks 10 days ahead of the Jan. 5 inauguration for her, Adrian Fontes, Kris Mayes, Kimberly Yee and Tom Horne, who all won statewide office in November. Their terms begin Jan. 2.
“As a social worker, I know firsthand the importance of these crucial agencies to the lives of the people who need them,” Hobbs wrote in a press release. “I am confident that this group of talented individuals has what it takes to transform our state’s health, social and safety systems so that they work for everyone across Arizona.”
Cullen spent 25 years in the U.S. Public Health Service from 1984 to 2012 and rose to the rank of rear admiral and assistant surgeon general. During that time, she also worked in several roles with the Indian Health Services, including as Chief Information Officer and as a clinical director at the Sells Hospital in Tohono O’odham Nation. She also worked at hospitals on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and in San Xavier in the Tohono O’odham Nation.
In addition to Cullen’s appointment, Hobbs also named the heads of the Departments of Housing, Economic Security and Child Safety as well as the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Those selections included:
- Carmen Heredia — Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). Heredia is the CEO of Valle del Sol, a community health center.
- Angie Rodgers — Department of Economic Security. Rodgers is the president and CEO for the Arizona Food Bank Network.
- Matthew Stewart — Department of Child Safety. Stewart worked in the department as a child safety specialist and is now the CEO of Support Families, a consulting group.
- Joan Serviss — Department of Housing. Serviss is the director of the Arizona Housing Coalition.
The choice of Cullen was welcomed by Will Humble, a former ADHS director who was a frequent critic of what he saw as a lax approach to the pandemic by Christ and the Ducey administration.
"I know the county health departments — who do the public health grunt work — will be delighted to have an ADHS director who embraces the key role (they) play in Arizona's public health system and who'll facilitate their success," he said.Despite her extensive time in the federal government, Cullen has never worked at the state level. She also directed departments in the Veterans Health Administration and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for more than four years.
She also volunteered as a physician with Partners in Health to go to Sierra Leone for two months during the 2014-2015 Ebola Crisis in West Africa. She set up a maternity unit during her time in Freetown, Sierra Leone. While she was with the U.S. Public Health Service, she was deployed to Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Cullen is a graduate from the University of Arizona, where she got her medical degree in 1983, and from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she studied Administrative Medicine and Population Health. She also worked in the private sector for more than eight years and spent most of that specializing in medical informatics, which uses technology and data to improve health services.
In her application to become Pima County health director, Cullen wrote that even though her career spanned multiple interests, "the common theme of improving health equity and helping diverse communities achieve health justice.”
Cullen replaced Dr. Bob England, who was the interim director from summer 2019 to 2020, after Marcy Flanagan left to direct the Maricopa County Health Department. Flanagan is still in that position and took over in Maricopa County for England, who had retired.
As PCHD director, Cullen guided the county's efforts to set up free COVID testing and vaccination with the help of federal relief. Pima County has offered mobile COVID vaccination events throughout her tenure to reach areas further from county clinics and continues to offer free at-home COVID tests at public libraries and vaccines at health clinics.
She would similarly manage the limited supply of vaccines and testing for monkeypox when it spread to Pima County. More recently, Pima County has taken on a similar response to COVID that they took earlier in the pandemic because of a "tripledemic" of RSV, influenza and COVID, which has led Cullen to again recommend masking and social distancing as well as to offer more free mobile flu and COVID vaccine clinics in more at-risk areas and more at-home COVID tests.
Hobbs has also filled out senior roles for her administration, including her Chief of Staff Allie Bones. She’s appointed directors of communication, policy, public affairs, operations and diversity, equity and inclusion as well as the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting.
The governor-elect has also said that she’ll create a chief equity officer, like the city of Tucson, "to build a more diverse government," according to a statement apologizing for discrimination against fired state Senate staffer Talonya Adams.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.