AHCA secretary leaves FL post for hospital lobbying group

The secretary for Florida’s health agency, one of the point people for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ coronavirus response, is leaving the post to lead one of the state’s healthcare lobbying groups.

Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, is leaving to become CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, a lobbying group that represents most of the state’s hospitals, DeSantis announced Friday. Her last day will be Oct. 4. A search is starting for a successor.

The surprise announcement comes after six months of helping to lead the state’s coronavirus response, and following a month of controversy over her agency’s decision to award a potential $135 million contract to Deloitte Consulting, the company that built Florida’s broken unemployment system.

DeSantis has publicly blasted Deloitte’s work on the unemployment website and ordered an investigation into the state’s 2011 contract with the company. The announcement last month to award Deloitte another big state contract posed a challenge for DeSantis, who has already been criticized for his response to the unemployment crisis. The new contract was to overhaul how the state manages its Medicaid data.

DeSantis said he wasn’t happy with Deloitte’s new award, but he couldn’t legally stop it under the state’s procurement laws. Two companies that lost to Deloitte have filed bid protests temporarily stopping the state from formalizing its agreement with Deloitte.

As secretary, Mayhew leads a $29.4 billion healthcare agency that represents about 31{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of Florida’s total state budget.

Mayhew was President Donald Trump’s Medicaid chief and arguably DeSantis’ most controversial hire when he took office last year. Before joining the Trump administration, she won praise from conservatives for her cost-cutting work as a health official in Maine.

Hard-line stance on nursing home visits

During the pandemic, Mayhew has been a consistent advocate for DeSantis, often amplifying his comments about the administration’s goal of protecting the vulnerable, especially those in state-licensed long-term care facilities.

She and DeSantis pushed for a ban on visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in mid-March, an order that was only lifted this week. She worked to develop a system of COVID-only facilities to keep patients who were not sick enough for acute-care hospital beds, a policy Florida enacted sooner than many other states.

Mayhew withstood months of backlash from families and advocates over the visitation ban. They criticized the administration for having a double standard that allowed staff to come into facilities without being routinely tested while they banned families, including those who agreed to be tested. After convening a task force, Mayhew and the governor lifted the ban on visitations effective this week, and implemented a new standard that is designed to allow restricted visitations for family members.

For the past several months Mayhew was seen as a close advocate for the industry’s approach to the pandemic, even allowing the industry trade group, the Florida Health Care Association, to host her weekly briefings.

She did not side with the industry, however, on the issue of testing. As the trade associations representing nursing homes and assisted living facilities, AARP and family advocates urged the administration to push for widespread testing of staff to staunch the spread of the virus, Mayhew stood by the governor, who never got ahead of the White House and did not immediately call for the testing.

Only when the White House announced it would approve of regular testing of nursing home staff in June did Florida enact a policy to push for it, even as infections in Florida homes became among the highest in the nation.

In July, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released its national list of 62 counties that it considered “hot spots” where COVID-19 cases are rising dangerously fast at nursing homes, and one-third of them were in Florida.

Praise for Mayhew

At a roundtable in Clearwater on Thursday, healthcare leaders from around Florida praised Mayhew’s work through the pandemic. They thanked her for being responsive to the needs of hospitals and long-term care facilities. Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Mayhew and DeSantis were smart to lock down Florida nursing homes as early as they did.

The administration has made sure those facilities have had what they needed, Verma added, and made the right call last month to start reopening them.

Mayhew said the pandemic has presented “catalysts for change” that the state needs to capitalize on while government has been forced to be more nimble through the crisis. She called telehealth a “game changer” for Floridians who previously had trouble accessing care.

Specifically, Mayhew expressed concern about the toll the pandemic has had on residents’ mental health. She said government leaders should be looking at ways to improve access to mental health services and “cannot lose sight” of more vulnerable populations.

Though coronavirus cases are down, Mayhew said, Floridians must continue to wear masks and practice social distancing because the turnaround time for test results is too slow to be meaningful.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.