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Hochul Names Dr. Mary Bassett as New State Health Commissioner
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Dr. Mary T. Bassett
Credit: Harvard

Hochul Announces New State Health Commissioner

Dr. Mary T. Bassett will be the next commissioner of the state Department of Health, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday, making her the next top official in New York to lead the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bassett was previously the commissioner of health for New York City, but left a few years back to lead Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

She will be the first Black person to serve in the role and said In a statement that she’ll place special focus on inequities in access to reliable, affordable health care.

"The pandemic underscored the importance of public health, while also revealing inequities driven by structural racism,” Bassett said. “As we move to end the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to create a state that is more equitable for all New Yorkers.”

Before Bassett was selected as the head of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, she worked as a top official in the agency, focusing on disease prevention. Before that, she worked at the University of Zimbabwe for 17 years.

Hochul had been under pressure since she took office in August to replace current Health Commissioner Howard Zucker over his alleged involvement in the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, and data related to those facilities.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Zucker submitted his letter of resignation last week, though it’s unclear if he was pressured to do so by the administration, or just wanted to move on.

In a statement, Hochul said Bassett was the right choice to lead the state Department of Health as the pandemic continues to wane.

"Our recovery from this pandemic requires tested leadership and experience to improve health equity and access across the state, and Dr. Bassett is perfectly equipped to lead the New York State Department of Health during this critical moment," Hochul said.

Bassett's experience with racial justice in the realm of health care inspired some who've advocated for criminal justice changes through the lens of public health.

The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, which has called for state lawmakers to approve legislation that would allow older incarcerated individuals to be considered for parole, said Bassett could be a welcome change for their effort.

"Dr. Bassett’s record of advocating for decarceration, particularly for older adults in prison, to protect against the ravages of COVID-19 behind bars is a welcome break from the previous commissioner, who failed to act," said Jose Saldana, director of RAPP.

"We look forward to working with her in our efforts to end a crisis of aging, sickness, and death in New York State prisons.”  

Bassett will be Hochul’s first major cabinet appointment since she took office. More are expected, but Hochul hasn’t given any indication of who will stay in her new administration, and who will go.

Bassett still has to be confirmed by the State Senate to be formally installed in her new position, but can serve as acting commissioner until that time. Her appointment is effective December 1, but lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Albany until January. 

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