Massachusetts

Doctor for poor chosen as Mass. health commissioner

Baker’s choice known for working with homeless, vulnerable in state

Dr. Monica Bharel has a  quick grasp of complex issues, associates say.
Baker administration
Dr. Monica Bharel has a quick grasp of complex issues, associates say.

A physician who has spent much of her life ministering to the most impoverished residents in Massachusetts will soon take the reins at the state’s Department of Public Health.

Dr. Monica Bharel , chief medical officer at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, was tapped Tuesday by the administration of Governor-elect Charlie Baker as the next state health commissioner.

The appointment elated health advocates, who said the 44-year-old Bharel has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of the state’s homeless and most vulnerable, stretching back two decades to her days in medical school.

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Bharel is also known for her insatiable curiosity and for her quick grasp of complex issues and ability to translate them to everyday concepts, advocates said. “Monica has an electric personality,” said Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of Health Care for the Homeless. “She is focused, and about as committed and compassionate as anyone you would ever know, and has a lightning-quick mind.”

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Marylou Sudders, Baker’s pick to be the next Health and Human Services secretary, said in a statement Bharel’s “accomplished career in public health will serve her well in this important position.”

A Baker spokesman said Bharel was unavailable for an interview. Cheryl Bartlett, the most recent health commissioner, stepped down earlier this month amid questions about her leadership.

State records show that recent health commissioners have earned about $150,000 a year.

Bharel, who is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and Boston University School of Medicine, will lead of one of the state’s most troubled agencies.

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The health department has been mired in controversy since 2012, when a drug analyst with the agency tampered with evidence and jeopardized tens of thousands of criminal convictions. That was quickly followed by a meningitis outbreak traced to a compounding pharmacy regulated by one of the department’s boards, and then the agency found itself in the cross hairs again because of the problem-plagued rollout of the state’s medical marijuana law.

With more than 3,000 employees and a $540 million budget, the department regulates hospitals, nursing homes, and myriad other facilities, in addition to running more than 100 programs addressing everything from infectious diseases to substance abuse.

That’s about 10 times the size of Health Care for the Homeless, which provides health care to more than 12,500 homeless adults and children in Greater Boston.

“She has a deep appreciation of how tough this job is, but also the upside of what she can do,” O’Connell said. “But I don’t think she is going in with rose-colored glasses at all. She is looking at this as a truly new challenge.”

Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, one of the region’s largest homeless shelters, said Bharel is extraordinarily analytical and data driven — a “systems thinker,” but with a very human touch.

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When she treats homeless patients, she is “nonjudgmental, engaging, and easy to work with,” Downie said.

Bharel also understands that the path to better health leads through affordable housing and good nutrition, Downie added.

“Sometimes, the housing people and the service people don’t necessarily have the same goal in mind, and they don’t connect seamlessly,” Downie said. “So we have to create patchworks, and if there is anyone who understands the coordination, that systems have to work together, it’s Monica.”

Bharel received her masters in public health through the Commonwealth Fund/Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health Policy. Her medical degree is from Boston University.

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Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.