Gov. Scott Walker on Monday named Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Tom Engels as the agency’s interim leader following the death Saturday of Secretary Kitty Rhoades.

Rhoades, 65, died in Madison of pneumonia with her family at her side, according to her obituary.

Engels, named deputy secretary of the health department in February, previously was deputy secretary at the Department of Safety and Professional Services. Prior to that, he served as vice president of public affairs for the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin.

Engels has also served as government affairs director for the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, deputy press secretary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson and communications director for the Senate Republican Caucus. He also worked for former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug.

“I have no doubt that Tom will serve the people of Wisconsin well as interim secretary as we begin the process to appoint Kitty’s successor,” Walker said in a statement.

The health department is one of the largest in state government, with an annual budget of roughly $10 billion and more than 6,100 employees.

Rhoades was named secretary of the health department in 2013 and deputy secretary in 2011. Her sudden death shook the many people she worked with in health care and state government, including in the state Assembly, where she served for 12 years as a Republican representative from Hudson.

“During her time in the legislature and at DHS, Secretary Rhoades was a passionate long-term care advocate who routinely reached across the political aisle to gain support for person-centered services,” Wisconsin Long Term Care Coalition Co-Chair Lynn Breedlove said Monday in one of dozens of tributes to Rhoades. “She was one of the first legislators in either political party to truly understand and champion self-direction of long-term care services.”

Michael Gifford, president and CEO of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, said Rhoades “exemplified what it means to be a public servant, distinguishing herself by putting people above all else throughout her career.

“Her steadfast commitment to improving the health of all Wisconsinites — and especially people living with and at-risk for HIV — helped ensure the adoption and implementation of enlightened public policy,” Gifford said. “Her legacy will be one of helping Wisconsin realize an era of long, healthy lives for people with HIV, ushering in new models of care for patients, and driving innovation that made our state a true leader in response to one of the most pressing public health crises of our time.”

She is survived by her husband, Frank, and three sons.


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