Former AHCCCS Director Tom Betlach Will Lead DES Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security in south Phoenix. Elizabeth Whitman

Governor Doug Ducey has appointed Tom Betlach, former Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System  director, to serve as an interim director of the Department of Economic Security.

“Tom served Arizonans with excellence for nearly three decades and as a trusted advisor to me for four years, Ducey said in a press release on March 20. “I can think of nobody better to step in and lead the agency responsible for caring for Arizona’s most vulnerable at this crucial time — and I’m grateful to Tom for his continued willingness to serve.”

The role of acting director of the state's largest agency had previously been filled by Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Department of Health Services. Betlach's appointment will allow Christ to fully focus on the DHS' increasingly hands-on role in combating the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona.

Betlach will lead the agency on "special temporary assignment" for 75 days, while Christ leads Arizona’s response to COVID-19. He starts immediately.

“It’s an honor to be asked to serve, especially at a time that demands so much of all of us," Betlach said in the press release. "I look forward to joining the talented women and men of the Department of Economic Security as we continue the agency’s mission to help Arizona’s families in need.”

Betlach worked for the state of Arizona in various capacities for 27 years, according to Ducey's release. Before retiring in 2018, he served as director of AHCCCS for nine years, overseeing the merging of the Department of Behavioral Health Services with the state Medicaid program in 2016. Ducey credits him with "paving the way for the agency to integrate physical and behavioral health services under a single health plan" and facilitating the agency's transformation into "one of the nation’s most widely recognized and well-run Medicaid programs in the country."

Prior to leading the agency, Betlach spent eight years as AHCCCS' deputy director.

It's been a tumultuous year and a half for the DES, which employs over 7,000 people to facilitate social services to vulnerable citizens within Arizona. An ongoing lawsuit alleged that the agency fails to provide overtime pay to caseworkers who provide services to people with developmental disabilities. Reports circulated of overburdened workloads, management stifling salary conversations, poor retention of staff, and bedbug outbreaks in multiple DES offices. Finally, former director Michael Trailor resigned with little explanation in September 2019, and was followed by three more members of upper-level leadership less than two months later.

Betlach is the agency's sixth director in five years.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.