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Acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader sailed through his confirmation hearing before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee on Monday, rattling off a list of accomplishments, describing how his agency has sought to navigate a once-in-a-century pandemic, and sketching out some of the priorities he will pursue over the next year, if — as appears virtually certain — he is approved by the full Senate.
At the end of a roughly 50-minute session, the committee voted 17-1, with one abstention, to send Schrader’s nomination to the full Senate.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) praised Schrader for his willingness to attend the occasionally contentious weekly meetings of the chamber’s Vaccine Work Group, and to incorporate suggestions presented by lawmakers.
If there was a hiccup in Schrader’s hour-long appearance before the nominations panel, it was his opening statement, which was cut short by chairman Ronald Young (D-Frederick) to give lawmakers the chance to ask questions.
Despite a series of challenges with the rollout of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program, the session contained little of the venom or scorched-earth questioning that would be needed to imperil the nomination.
Schrader’s appearance before Executive Nominations came amid a mini-PR campaign from the Hogan administration on behalf of the nominee, including letters of support from Schrader’s popular predecessor, Robert R. Neall, and several of the state’s leading medical organizations.
“The governor welcomes the committee’s favorable vote, and its recognition that Acting Secretary Schrader is the right leader to continue steering the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the governor’s spokesman, Michael Ricci. “We look forward to confirmation by the full Senate.”
The lone dissenting vote came from Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard), a physician and a persistent Schrader critic.
Lam suggested that top state health officials have been “at war” with local health officers and that the agency’s vaccination strategy has been haphazard and full of policy reversals.
Schrader thanked Lam for his “admonition” and said he had “nothing but respect” for local health officers.
Ferguson praised the secretary “for taking constructive feedback.”
“The plan was adjusted along the way, and I do appreciate that,” he added.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), who has pressed Schrader repeatedly to boost the lagging vaccination effort in his county, praised the nominee for “his enormous work ethic, enormous diligence, enormous cooperation in trying to work through the very difficult problem.”
Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) beseeched Schrader to get on top of a mental health-provider payment system that she maintained is “an accounting nightmare” and “in crisis.”
Asked to look at what he would accomplish if confirmed, Schrader said he is already starting to think about how the state will provide COVID-19 booster shots, should they be needed, as well as a vaccination program for children.
“There’s a lot to do here,” he said. “I’m already thinking about next year, and the spring, and what are the options going to be.”
With COVID-19 infections starting to increase in the wake of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s decision to ease restrictions on business activity, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) asked Schrader whether he would “direct to governor to put public health above economic development” should things get even worse.
Schrader recalled that he pressed Maryland hospitals to retain their “surge” capacity last year, “even when it appeared we were out of the woods.”
“I had many difficult conversations with the hospital industry and others,” he added. “We are going to do the right thing.”
Pinsky abstained on the vote to recommend Schrader to the full Senate.
In the hours leading up to the hearing, the Hogan administration boasted of an increase in vaccination doses to local health departments. Local agencies have said they are best-positioned to reach vulnerable populations.
In addition, the Maryland Hospital Association, MedChi — the Maryland State Medical Society, and University of Maryland Medical System CEO Mohan Suntha supplied letters of recommendation to the Executive Nominations committee,
In his letter of support, Neall praised his former deputy for his “strong and steady leadership.”
A popular former Senator who stepped down in November, Neall said it’s imperative that the state have Schrader at the helm to foster “the continuation of the Maryland Model contract with the Federal Government, which is worth billions in benefits to the people of Maryland.
“Dennis has a complete knowledge and understanding of this complex relationship and is in the best position to negotiate favorable terms and protect essential provisions,” he added.