"While it's hard to step away, it's the right time for me personally and the right time for our team," Cohen said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve this state at such an important moment in history."
Cohen, first appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, has been instrumental in the state government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has often been the public face and spokeswoman for everything from vaccinations to mask requirements in schools.
She was even named 2020's "Tar Heel of the Year" by ABC11's news partner, the Raleigh News & Observer.
"It's nice to be recognized, particularly as 'The Three W's Lady'," Dr. Cohen quipped in an earlier interview with ABC11, noting her near-daily emphasis on wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands as key efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. "But when I go home at the end of the day, I have two daughters and they could care less if I'm on TV or not."
Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services is among the largest agencies in state government and, in particular, the governor's administration. As Secretary, Cohen is the de facto CEO of an organization with 17,000 employees and an annual budget of $20 billion. The department's programs affect millions of North Carolinians, NC Medicaid, Public Health, Mental Health/IDD/SUD, State Operated Hospitals and Facilities, Economic Services, Adult and Child Services, Early Childhood Education, Employment Services, and Health Services Regulation.
In a news release, Cooper said he nominated Chief Deputy Secretary Kody Kinsley to replace her beginning Jan. 1. He will need to be confirmed by the North Carolina Senate.
Kinsley has served as the state operation's lead for the COVID-19 pandemic response and has served in the department for nearly four years. He will be the first openly gay cabinet secretary in North Carolina history.
In Tuesday's news conference, Cohen affirmed her confidence in Kinsley's ability to lead the department, despite his lack of a medical degree.
"So much of it is about the execution and the operations, and this is where Kody Kinsley shines, and I have leaned on him so much," Cohen said.
Prior to joining the department, Kinsley worked for the federal government under both the Trump and Obama administrations.
As for her own future, Cohen said she will take some time to recharge with her family before looking for the next opportunity. While she said she has no plans to run for public office, she did not say whether her next role would keep her in the Tar Heel state.
"Mandy Cohen has shown extraordinary leadership during her tenure and she has worked every day during this pandemic to help keep North Carolinians healthy and safe," said Gov. Cooper in a written statement. "We are stronger because of her efforts and I am enormously grateful for her service. She has built a remarkable team of talented people including Kody Kinsley, and I know he will continue the strong legacy of competence, effectiveness and efficiency as he takes over as Secretary."
Before coming to North Carolina, Dr. Cohen was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and was a key figure in managing several provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
According to her official state biography, "she brings a deep understanding of health care to the state and has been responsible for implementing policies for Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace."
Dr. Cohen's leadership in North Carolina has also gained national recognition, as there was wide speculation that Dr. Cohen was a finalist for a position in the Biden administration. Also in 2020, Dr. Cohen won the Leadership in Public Health Practice Award from Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health for her role in the state's pandemic response.
Area hospitals also joined in congratulating Cohen on her tenure.
"North Carolina has been extremely fortunate to have Dr. Mandy Cohen's leadership over the past five years, and especially throughout the pandemic," said Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health and Dean of UNC School of Medicine, in a written statement. "She has demonstrated strong and steady leadership in helping guide North Carolina through this crisis. Her passion for helping others was an important factor in reducing the impact COVID has had on our state. I have appreciated her wise advice many times during the past two years. I wish her all the best and thank her for her unwavering dedication to improving the health and wellbeing of all North Carolinians. We look forward to continuing to work with Kody Kinsley in his new role as Secretary."
Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the state senate, also released a statement:
"Secretary Cohen's leadership throughout her tenure at the DHHS has helped our state navigate turbulent times. She made herself available to legislators to answer questions and kept us informed about issues facing the department. She was also instrumental in successfully implementing Medicaid transformation. I want to thank her for her service to the state and wish her well in her future endeavors."