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Evers names Milwaukee health chief to lead state health department


Evers names Milwaukee health chief to lead state health department

Feb 06, 2023 | 5:27 pm ET
By Erik Gunn
Evers names Milwaukee health chief to lead state health department
The Wisconsin state office building housing the Department of Health Services (DHS), previously the Department of Health and Family Services before the agency was split into separate departments. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Milwaukee’s outgoing health commissioner has been named to head the state health department, Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday.

Kirsten Johnson will take office Feb. 27 as Secretary of the Department of Health Services (DHS). She succeeds Karen Timberlake, who left the Evers administration at the end of 2022.

Evers names Milwaukee health chief to lead state health department
Kirsten Johnson, secretary nominee, Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS)

“Over the past 20 years of my career in public health, I have worked to address the challenges and health disparities facing Wisconsin’s rural, urban, and suburban communities alike — disparities that were laid bare by the pandemic,” Johnson said in a statement from the governor’s office. She said she was “excited and honored to join Gov. Evers’ administration to lead DHS, where I look forward to using my expertise and knowledge to continue this important work.”

Johnson was the director and health officer for the combined health department for Washington and Ozaukee counties for more than a decade, where she oversaw the merger of the two county agencies into the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department. She was appointed Milwaukee health commissioner in January 2021.

“Kirsten has a storied, 20-plus year career in public health and public service, including her time serving Washington and Ozaukee Counties and the city of Milwaukee during some of our state’s toughest days,” Evers said in a statement. “I have no doubt that her wealth of experience in public health, as well as her commitment to reducing disparities in health so every Wisconsinite can live their best and fullest life, will serve the Department and our state well.”

In her two-year tenure at the Milwaukee health department Johnson restructured the agency, according to a statement from Mayor Cavalier Johnson (no relation) last month after she had announced she would be resigning effective March 3.

Cavalier Johnson’s statement, reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, credited Kirsten Johnson with addressing problems in the city’s lead program. During her time in Milwaukee, the health department bolstered its lead poisoning prevention program with federal pandemic relief aid.

Kirsten Johnson’s announcement that she would be resigning took place days after a contentious email exchange with Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy regarding a December public meeting to discuss a 24-hour homeless shelter in his district, the Journal Sentinel reported.  

In addition to her posts in Milwaukee and at the Ozaukee Washington Public Health, Johnson has been a health policy fellow and advisor to former U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a program manager for the Healthy Wisconsin Leadership Institute at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and a health education volunteer with the Peace Corps. She has a master’s degree in public health from Tulane University and has been a member of several local, state and national public health committees and organizations.