Marylou Sudders, who has served longer than anyone else in recent memory as the state’s health secretary, is stepping down.
In a note to staff Monday, Sudders said she had filed her papers for retirement for paid public service last month. The effective date will be Jan. 5.
“Having entered state service in 1978, it has been the privilege of my professional career and an extraordinarily humbling experience to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services for Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito,” she wrote.
Sudders, who will have served nearly eight years in the Baker administration, noted that she inadvertently became the state’s longest serving secretary of health and human services, though that was never her goal.
“The goal has always been to channel the millions of Massachusetts residents that need governmental assistance in order to have good lives for themselves and their loved ones,” she wrote.
As secretary, Sudders oversees the largest single state department, one that accounts for roughly half the state’s spending, and is comprised of 12 agencies, in addition to two soldiers’ homes and the MassHealth program. It directly touches the lives of roughly one in four state residents, including some of the most vulnerable children, youth, adults, and elders.
Described by Baker as his “center of gravity,” Sudders notched some notable achievements, but also widely-criticized failures during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She led the ambitious state COVID-19 vaccination program, including its online website for finding shots. The system memorably crashed in February 2021 when nearly 1 million Massachusetts residents had just become eligible for their shots at the stroke of midnight.
The website crumpled under the barrage of anxious vaccine-seekers, leaving thousands staring at an image of a four-legged orange octopus and a message that the site had crashed. The social media posts were swift and biting, with some calling it “vax insanity.”
But within a month, the state’s vaccine program had gone from slow and balky to one of the top 10 nationally for vaccines administered per capita. Problems with vaccine access and equity, however, have lingered.
Sudders and the Baker administration also were pelted with outrage for their handling of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, where a deadly COVID outbreak ravaged the facility in March 2020 and killed 76 veterans.
But throughout her tenure as secretary, Sudders was also widely praised for her passion. A tireless advocate for mental health services before joining the Baker administration, Sudders is credited for understanding the need to beef up funding for mental health and addiction treatment services early in the pandemic.
Her resignation comes as Governor-elect Maura Healey continues to name members of her new Cabinet.
Health leaders on Monday said the new administration will have big shoes to fill, and emphasized the need to consider diversity and health equity issues as vital in the selection.
“I think government is starting to recognize that government doesn’t function well if it is not representative of the people it serves,” said Michael Curry, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. Curry is also cochair of the volunteer Safe and Healthy Communities For All Ages transition committee for the incoming Healey administration.
“It’s daunting to follow [Sudders] and lead in the same way she did,” Curry said. “But someone will come with different skills and hopefully adopt her level of availability and visibility and compassion for the issues.”
Curry and others spoke of Sudders’ remarkable work ethic, seemingly on-the-clock 24/7. Curry recalled a text he received from Sudders about an issue while she was on vacation in Hawaii.
Andrew Dreyfus, chief executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, said two urgent issues facing the next secretary will be controlling health care costs and widening affordability.
“You really need a strong voice, but also a great listener, because there are big issues that only get resolved when people come together,” Dreyfus said.
He noted that Massachusetts health leaders managed to coalesce around the thorny issue of health care reform and created the state’s landmark law that became a model for the nation.
“Now the community needs to turn its attention to affordability and quality,” Dreyfus said. “I am optimistic we can tackle it, but it won’t be easy.”
Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said given how sprawling the Executive Office of Health and Human Services is, the next secretary will need to be someone who can build relationships between different agencies.
In her note to staff, Sudders left no hint about her future plans. But she acknowledged there is much left to be done.
“There is always more work ahead, challenges to surmount and opportunities for improvement,” Sudders wrote.
“This is a message of thanks and gratitude for your willingness to be public employees, particularly throughout the past almost three years,” she wrote. “Your willingness to transcend the public’s often derisive image of public service, to confront seemingly insolvable issues with creativity and openness, and with the intrinsic knowledge that we engage in this work to help others.”