Despite concerns about CDC influence, Kansas Senate approves Janet Stanek as health secretary

By: - March 10, 2022 8:21 am

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand said Janet Stanek’s efforts to clarify and follow-up on questions asked during the confirmation hearing was enough to sway him to vote in favor of her appointment as health secretary. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas senators voted Wednesday to confirm Janet Stanek as the new leader of the state’s health department.

The decision to approve Stanek comes after the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee chose to advance the governor’s nominee without a recommendation. During the confirmation hearing earlier this month, conservative Republicans expressed concerns about how Stanek would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules and the performance of Lee Norman, the previous Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary.

But during debate on the floor, senators said they were pleased with Stanek’s efforts to follow up and clarify answers from the hearing. Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, said not only did she come across as genuine in her desires to improve relations with the Legislature, but also soothed concerns she would immediately resort to mandates.

“I do believe that she’s sincere when she talks about wanting to have open communication with the legislative body and about getting information out,” Hilderbrand said. “She has been very responsive whenever I have asked a question or asked for information, and I appreciate that because that’s not the way it’s always been.”

Stanek was appointed to her current role shortly after Norman was forced to resign in November, for what he said was a lack of adherence to a tight, scripted message the governor’s office wanted to send. Only five members, all Republicans, opposed Stanek’s nomination.

The Senate also unanimously approved the nomination of Angela Coble to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Coble, a Salina attorney, previously served as counsel to two U.S. District Court judges and most recently worked for U.S. Magistrate Judge Gwynne Birzer.

Before taking her new post, Stanek served as the director of the State Employee Health Benefits Program. She spent several decades in health care leadership positions in Pennsylvania, New York and Kansas, including 21 years at Stormont Vail Health in Topeka.

Because Stanek is not a medical doctor, she will lead the state agency as its secretary while somebody else serves as the state’s top health officer. Joan Duwve became the acting state health officer in January.

“As a skilled and qualified leader in the world of health care, secretary Stanek is well equipped to handle the changing scope public health has taken since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Gov. Laura Kelly. “The state is in good hands with the thoughtfulness, collaboration, and sound judgment she brings to the agency.”

Those who opposed Stanek’s confirmation were concerned with her approach to CDC recommendations regarding masks, vaccines and COVID-19 treatments. However, Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican, said her decision came down to the state’s quarantine statute, not Stanek’s qualifications.

“Our statutes allow for an unelected government official to quarantine or even seize our children from our own homes,” she said. “Until we correct Chapter 75, I would vote no, no matter who it is.”

Ultimately, Stanek expressed a desire to have working relationships with legislators regardless of how they voted. Stanek also told legislators during the confirmation hearing the agency stopped airing COVID-19 vaccine advertisements after some Republican lawmakers expressed concerns with calling the shot safe and effective.

She said she was committed to improving that line of communication and further building on her work with the department thus far.

“I have been impressed with the work of the KDHE team, particularly in leading the state’s response to the pandemic,” secretary Stanek said. “I look forward to continue to work with the entire team and our stakeholders throughout the state to build on their outstanding work as we move out of the pandemic and into the future.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.