D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has appointed Barbara Bazron — a veteran manager of public health agencies in both the District and Maryland — to lead the Department of Behavioral Health.
The appointment, announced Tuesday, is key for an agency at the forefront of the city’s efforts to stem extraordinarily high rates of opioid overdoses.
The long-awaited announcement of a new director for the department comes after the previous director, Tanya Royster, was removed from her job late last year amid growing doubts about her effectiveness in steering the agency.
Advocates and D.C. lawmakers have said they hoped Bowser’s choice would have the managerial skills to overhaul the department’s often dysfunctional bureaucracy — as well as deep experience in dealing with opioid addiction and overdoses, which have emerged as the District’s worst public-health crisis in decades.
Bazron, a seasoned bureaucrat who has consulted for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), worked for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health between 2007 and 2015, according to a biography published on the website of a 2015 conference at which she spoke. She served as interim director of the agency in 2015 before Bowser's appointment of Royster.
More recently, she was deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, heading the state’s Behavioral Health Administration.
Bowser administration officials did not explain the mayor’s choice Tuesday.
William Lawson, former head of the psychiatry department at the Howard University College of Medicine and a past president of the Washington Psychiatric Society, said he had found her an effective collaborator during her previous stint at the behavioral health department. Lawson praised Bazron for communicating with and seeking input from the city’s mental-health professionals.
“She was very easy to work with,” Lawson said. “She also understood the importance of integrating mental health and substance abuse (treatment).”
Bazron returns to a D.C. agency in turmoil. The department has come under harsh criticism in recent months for its lackluster response to heroin and fentanyl overdoses, which increased more than threefold between 2014 and 2017, surpassing the District's homicides. Those deaths have disproportionately afflicted black Washingtonians, whose opioid overdose rates exceed those of whites in West Virginia or New Hampshire.
In January, after The Washington Post published a series on the crisis and the city’s faltering response, federal officials launched an audit of the Department of Behavioral Health to determine whether it had misused grant money. Royster was terminated after she was interviewed by The Post and two weeks before the stories ran.
Amid heightened scrutiny from the public and D.C. Council, Bowser has pledged to cut opioid overdose deaths in half by next year and announced moves designed to meet that goal. Among them are new outreach and treatment programs for drug users at three D.C. hospitals and a dramatic expansion in the distribution of naloxone, a lifesaving opioid overdose antidote.
The Department of Behavioral Health is also scheduled to receive tens of millions of dollars in new opioid grants from the federal government over the next two years. As agency director, Bazron will be responsible for ensuring those grants are used properly and in a timely manner.
That has not always happened with opioid grant dollars the department received from the federal government.
The District failed to implement key programs it said it would launch over the past two years with a $4 million federal grant, including outreach to heroin users on the street and at the city’s public hospital, United Medical Center. At the height of the opioid epidemic, the city left a sizable portion of the grant money unspent. In July 2018 city officials submitted a request to SAMHSA to carry over money they had not used.