New FSSA Secretary Dr. Jennifer Walthall hopes to build partnerships that focus on prevention and wellness for the state’s most vulnerable populations
It takes a mix of determination and compassion to tackle major public health issues like the 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County or the alarming infant mortality rates in East Chicago. Luckily for Indiana residents, the new Secretary of the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), Dr. Jennifer Walthall, has both.
“I grew up in northwest Indiana, and I also spent time on our family farm in rural Kansas,” said Walthall. “My parents value a strong work ethic, compassion and education, and they serve as great role models for these qualities.”
Walthall, who received her medical degree from the Indiana University (IU) School of Medicine and her Master of Public Health from the Fairbanks School of Public Health, most recently served as Deputy Health Commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) and as the emergency medicine/pediatrics program director. She also is an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine and pediatrics and continues to practice in the Riley Hospital for Children Emergency Department.
“I had the opportunity to serve as Deputy State Health Commissioner concurrently during my time as division chief, which was an important juxtaposition of the realities of where our health care safety nets are fragmented and why building public health infrastructure is so critical to children and their families,” said Walthall.
DEDICATED TO HELPING HOOSIERS
As ISDH Deputy Health Commissioner, Walthall focused on infant mortality, smoking cessation and adult obesity. She also oversaw the Office of Public Health Performance Management (OPHPM) and augmented the public presence of the Commissioner.
“Each of these tasks was incredibly rewarding in my two years at ISDH,” said Walthall.
Nonetheless, when Gov. Eric Holcomb asked her to lead FSSA following the departure of Dr. John Wernert, Walthall didn’t hesitate.
“I’m an ER doc. FSSA is the emergency medicine of public service,” said Walthall. “The role requires a big-picture approach to making important decisions on behalf of vulnerable Hoosiers and seeing them through.”
Walthall knows she has some big shoes to fill. Among Wernert’s many accomplishments was the approval and implementation of the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP) 2.0.
“HIP 2.0 was essential in the successes of our public health responses to the HIV epidemic in Scott County and lead response in East Chicago,” said Walthall. “Continuing to sharpen this tool for improved health outcomes will be pivotal for this administration.”
PRIORITIES AND VISION
One of Walthall’s top priorities is building partnerships with state, private and community groups to move toward a prevention and wellness model of decision-making.
“With a background in emergency medicine and public health, I can envision how building an infrastructure and set of policies that makes healthy behavior and access the easy cultural choice will naturally move us away from a constant firefight of emergencies,” she said.
Walthall notes that this requires a common vision for access and a dogged persistence in making a sustained investment in prevention. She cites four immediate goals:
“To serve Hoosiers in this capacity is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Walthall said. “Our team is eager to embrace change and willing to foster collaborative partnerships to bring those changes to bear.”