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Devils Lake native Mary Wakefield looks to life after top D.C. job

President Barack Obama meets with Mary Wakefield during Presidential Personnel Office recognition photos in the Oval Office in October 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Mary Wakefield's days in Washington, D.C., start early.

The Devils Lake native—and the acting deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—is up before 4 a.m., getting a head start on the day.

"If you talk to people with whom I work, they get emails starting by 4:15, and you don't shut your computer down, you don't get off phone calls before 9 at night," Wakefield said.

But that's about to change. Wakefield is set to be displaced by a nominee of President-elect Donald Trump, and in January she'll take her next steps—though she's not quite sure where they will lead. Right now, it means heading back to North Dakota for a short while.

"This is a big job," she said in a phone interview earlier this month. "It's a very demanding job, and it's been just an absolute privilege every single day working on behalf of North Dakotans and working on behalf of the nation's health. And so when I'm done, I'm going to take a couple of weeks off. And I'm probably going to go fishing—and it's probably going to be ice fishing."

Nursing, public service

Wakefield has had a long career in public service, culminating in a senior position in a department with about 80,000 employees. But it was a career that all began in nursing, a job she pursued after graduating in 1976 from what's now Bismarck's University of Mary. She soon leapt headlong into academia, teaching at UND and earning her doctorate in 1985 from the University of Texas in Austin.

But in 1987, she made the switch to public service.

"I started to work for former U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick in Washington," she said. "At the time, I was interested in just doing an internship in the summer ... kind of on a volunteer basis and learn about health policy. And at that time, in 1987, he was actually looking for a legislative assistant for health care, so I took that job in Washington."

Wakefield had spent only one day in the capital before then, but she quickly took to the profession and became Burdick's chief of staff in 1988. She went on to become chief of staff for former Sen. Kent Conrad as well during the 1990s.

"When I was caring for patients ... I might be caring for one or two patients in an ICU, or six patients on the floor of Altru Hospital, for example, but it was pretty clear to me early on that what very much influenced the health status of the people for whom I cared was health policy," Wakefield said. "And so that's what really drew me to Washington."

For example, Wakefield said, the patient who'd had a stroke—and had untreated high blood pressure for a long time before—might have fared better.

"That certainly struck me early on in my career, that some of my patients who were so ill were presenting with health care problems that potentially could have been prevented," she said.

After working in Washington until 1996, Wakefield became director of the Center for Health Policy, Research and Ethics at George Mason University and later was director of UND's Center for Rural Health. She began leading the Health Resources and Services Administration in 2009 and became acting deputy secretary for the Health and Human Services Department in 2015.

A look ahead

Health care policy has been front and center over the course of the Obama administration, and the stage is set for more debate. Trump has named Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., as his nominee to lead the department. Price, an orthopedic surgeon who has co-sponsored legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, has said that it's "doing real harm to American families."

Asked what words she might have for Price, Wakefield said he will inherit a department full of hardworking staff members.

"With regard to the Affordable Care Act, I have to say that it's so important to separate, from my vantage point, the rhetoric from the reality," she said. "We've got 20 million people who have insurance coverage who did not have it before, that we have people who have health care conditions who would have been the basis for being discriminated against, could have been the basis for being refused access to health insurance coverage."

Wakefield also mentioned a slew of departmental interests that go past Obamacare implementation—such as drug overdose deaths—and said staff are working hard to make sure the transition to Price's team, should he be confirmed, is smooth.

And as she looks ahead, Wakefield said she's thinking of what she's learned in North Dakota.

"What I learned from the communities that I grew up in and the people with whom I worked was some of the best education a person could have," she said. "I have been really proud to come out of the Northern Plains and be right here in the leadership of the largest agency in the U.S. government."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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