Cindy Gillespie is resigning as director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services to spend time with her 85-year-old mother in Georgia, she said in an interview Sept. 16.
“She’s had a few health issues this year, and that’s made me realize that at this stage in her life, my sister and I both just need to be living nearby so we can be there to be with her and help make sure that everything’s going well for her,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie’s resignation was announced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson Sept. 15. She will leave the position Oct. 7. Her salary is $287,042.08.
Hutchinson said he will name a successor at a later date.
Gillespie was appointed by Hutchinson in 2016. Earlier in her career, she served as a senior advisor to then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. There, she oversaw the Romney administration’s executive branch initiatives and helped develop the state’s health reforms.
She earlier had been a senior executive on the committee responsible for hosting the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games. She also was a director of the non-profit committee hosting the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Her mother and sister initially lived with her in Little Rock when Gillespie first moved here. Gillespie said her mother had health issues at the time, but the care she received in Arkansas improved her health enough that she moved back to her small Georgia hometown in 2020. Gillespie said her mother is still independent, but it’s a 12-hour drive to go see her.
Gillespie is leaving a sprawling agency with a budget of $10.6 billion and 6,610 currently filled positions. Its responsibilities include nursing homes, Medicaid, and child welfare.
Asked about the agency’s biggest achievements during her tenure, she mentioned reforms to DHS’s management of its juvenile justice-related services. Youth in the system now undergo a different assessment, medical professionals now create treatment plans, the young people are monitored in a hands-on way, and the agency is now using data better, she said.
“We don’t have kids who languish,” she said. “It’s very clear what’s going on, where everything is, and we now have recidivism dashboards. They’re able to start seeing the outcomes – not just the outcomes from the kids that come into our custody, but the kids that are out there with the community-based providers.”
Gillespie said that during the pandemic, agency employees continued working in their offices because the agency couldn’t shut down. Hundreds of rules had to be changed in a few days’ time. Telehealth rules quickly had to be put in place. Personal protective equipment had to be delivered to nursing homes. Foster kids would become infected with COVID, making them almost impossible to place with families with their own children.
“We would have workers who would stay at houses that people would loan us,” Gillespie said. “They would stay at houses with those kids, putting themselves at risk but then also having to deal with weeks away from their own families because then they would have to quarantine after they finally got those kids well.”
Gillespie said workforce issues are the biggest challenge facing human services agencies and health care providers across the country, particularly regarding direct care health professionals.
The other big challenge is inflation, with medical labor and supply costs increasing 20%. This will be a big issue as the short-term federal money provided during the pandemic begins to leave the system, she said.
Meanwhile, the agency is involved in a six-month process of redetermining the eligibility of 300,000 beneficiaries whose benefits were extended during the emergency. Most will be eligible to maintain their benefits.
The 64-year-old Gillespie said she was unsure about her future career plans, but she expects to work again.
“Right now, it’s definitely a break,” she said. “I can’t imagine that I won’t one day go back to doing some work, right? …. I think everybody here will tell you that I would go crazy doing nothing. On the other hand, right now I do need to spend time really focused on spending some time with her, spending time with my family, just enjoying life a little bit.”