Two large and sometimes troubled state agencies announced leadership changes last week, marking the most significant turnover in Gov. Jay Inslee’s cabinet since two agency chiefs resigned and a third was fired in early 2016.
On Tuesday, the Department of Corrections named veteran corrections manager Stephen Sinclair the agency’s secretary, replacing an interim leader.
Health Care Authority Director Dorothy Frost Teeter said Wednesday that she would resign June 30 after more than four years on the job.
While the changes are significant — the departments handle the state’s prisons and Medicaid health insurance for low-income people — they come with far less drama than the turbulent stretch in 2016.
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In that time:
▪ Former corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke quit after news the department mistakenly released thousands of prisoners too early because of a software error.
▪ Kevin Quigley left the Department of Social and Health Services, the state’s largest agency, which has faced ongoing safety and quality-of-care troubles at its 800-bed psychiatric hospital in Lakewood.
▪ The state Senate publicly ousted Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson by choosing not to confirm her after she had led the agency for three years. She faced criticism over her management of the ferry system, delays in the U.S. 99 tunnel project and more.
In contrast, the agencies changing leaders now appear more stable.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said the governor’s office believes “things have settled down” at the Corrections Department after the early release scandal, and said the Health Care Authority has succeeded under Teeter.
National search finds internal pick
The Corrections Department did a national search for its new secretary, but the state picked Sinclair, who has worked at the agency for 28 years.
He’s the fifth person to lead the agency under Inslee, all of whom were internal candidates. Before Sinclair, two interim secretaries were at the helm of the department.
The most recent was Jody Becker, who took over for Interim Secretary Dick Morgan in January.
Morgan was appointed to the position in 2016 after corrections Pacholke left in the wake of the early release scandal, in which a computer programming error led to more than 2,000 prisoners being released early between 2002 and 2015, according to corrections estimates.
Inslee defended picking another internal candidate, even after the nationwide search.
“I’m sure there are many leaders in correctional industries in the United States but (Sinclair) was the person for the job,” the governor said.
Sinclair most recently was assistant secretary of the department’s prisons division and appears to have good standing with some of the agency’s most frequent critics.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who chairs the Senate’s Law & Justice Committee, said in an emailed statement that Sinclair “demonstrates a potential for strong leadership, so important for the Department of Corrections, which has been left somewhat adrift without a permanent secretary for the last year.”
Padden helped lead an investigation into the early release issue last year.
Since the investigation, the department has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. Lawmakers worked to pass bills to increase oversight of the agency and its sentencing practices, but the measures have stalled.
“I am strongly committed to ensuring the agency continues to emphasize safety and security for staff and incarcerated people,” Sinclair said in a news release from the governor’s office.
Transitional time at health authority
Teeter’s biggest challenge in office was overseeing the implementation of the Obama administration’s federal health care law known as the Affordable Care Act.
The state began an online health insurance care exchange and expanded Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands under Obamacare.
About 750,000 people in Washington gained health insurance because of the law, and the state’s rate of uninsured people has dropped to 5.8 percent from 14 percent in 2013, according to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.
Teeter also touts a $1.5 billion waiver the state secured to pay for new health care programs from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as a success.
Her tenure hasn’t been free from controversy, however.
Some Republicans in the GOP-led state Senate have criticized the waiver over concerns the state could be on the hook for continuing the programs after the federal dollars go away.
Last year, some in the GOP blamed Teeter for a $600 million budget hole over four years, in part from higher-than-expected amounts being paid to insurers as part of Medicaid managed-care plans.
Republicans said the authority should have better predicted the increases and slammed the agency after firing Peterson in February 2016 while refusing to say if they would remove Teeter as well.
The Senate eventually kept Teeter, who said last week the increases weren’t unique to Washington, and “caught the entire country by surprise.”
She didn’t cite any of those battles as a reason for leaving the authority. She said she just believed it was time to move on. With no next move in mind, she said she wanted to “take some time this summer to recharge and refresh.”
In a statement, the Senate Republican leader on health care, Ann Rivers of La Center, said she was “appreciative of Dorothy’s service to the people of this state and wish her the very best in retirement.”
Smith, the Inslee spokeswoman, said the state plans a national search for Teeter’s replacement that will begin soon.