Health care

Ena Backus and Harry Chen departing Agency of Human Services

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Ena Backus, left, and Harry Chen. VTDigger photographs

Ena Backus, a longtime leader in Vermont’s health care payment reform effort, has left her role at the state Agency of Human Services. Meanwhile, the agency is still seeking a permanent head of the Department for Children and Families, as Dr. Harry Chen prepares to step down from his interim role as commissioner in late February.

Backus, the agency’s director of health care reform since 2018, will join the Vermont office of U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as an outreach representative next week. Her focus there will be on “pressing health care issues facing Vermont communities,” broadly interpreted, said Welch’s press secretary Emily Becker in written statements. 

“Our loss is Senator Welch’s gain,” said Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson in an emailed statement. She called Backus “a key member” of the agency.

Backus’ current deputy, Wendy Trafton, is now making scheduled appearances before a variety of legislative committees. 

Backus had a major role in negotiating the recent two-year extension of Vermont’s All-Payer Accountable Care Organization agreement with the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, which governs the rules around Medicare payments in the state. The flexibility allowed under that agreement supported Vermont regulators’ attempts to develop a payment structure that rewarded health outcomes and care quality.

Prior to joining the Agency of Human Services, Backus was a staff member at the Green Mountain Care Board, joining as a policy analyst at the board’s inception in 2011. In her final two years there, she served as the chief of health policy. She grew up in the Bristol area and currently resides in Montpelier.

“We are thankful Ena will continue serving Vermonters, because they could not ask for a more dedicated partner,” Samuelson said in her statement.

Harry Chen, of Burlington, was appointed interim Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families in October to replace Sean Brown, who moved to the Agency of Administration. 

An emergency medicine doctor, Chen served as the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health between 2011 and 2017, and as the interim secretary of the Agency of Human Services in 2014 and 2015. 

He and his spouse, Vermont Democratic Party chair Anne Lezak, spent a year in 2017 and 2018 in southeastern Uganda through the Peace Corps. Lezak announced this week that she is stepping down from her position as she and Chen plan to return to Uganda. 

Samuelson, in a written statement, thanked Chen for taking on the “tremendous task” of leading the department. “We appreciate his dedication and service, and look forward to continuing to work with him for the next month as we work to fill the role permanently,” she said.

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