Health Department Names Mass. Doctor

Article excerpt

A Massachusetts doctor with expertise in community health programs but little experience in environmental issues will take over an Allegheny County Health Department that has sought a new leader for more than a year.

Dr. Karen Hacker, 57, a Harvard professor who leads the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, wants to focus on disease prevention while the department continues its core regulatory role.

"I want to turn my attention from the classic public health functions to the more chronic disease focus and do things in those areas," Hacker said on Friday after County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and leaders of the Board of Health introduced her at a courthouse news conference. She cited cardiovascular disease, obesity and asthma as top ailments to work on.

The Heinz Endowments helped pay to find Hacker and will contribute $50,000 annually to her $195,000 salary for the next four years. The foundation supports research and awards grants for environmental and other public health studies but does not expect its money to buy influence in the department, spokesman Doug Root said.

"You have to have a salary that's competitive, and government may not be in the best position to do that," Root said. "The person in that position answers to a board and the public and the county executive who has not been shy about the direction he wants the department to go in."

Hacker acknowledged that environmental issues such as clean air and water dominate the agenda in Allegheny County.

"This is not my specific area of expertise, but I've worked with others who are experts," Hacker said, adding she has "a lot of reading to do" before she starts in September.

Her credentials in other areas make up for that, several people said.

"It was her academic credentials, her clinical skills, a wealth of experience and her interpersonal skills," said Dr. Edie Shapira, a health board member who co-chaired an eight-member search committee that chose Hacker.

"The health department deals with a broad range of issues: plumbing, food safety, dentistry, medicine, air quality. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has expertise in all those areas," said Joe Osborne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, which was not involved in Hacker's hiring or the news conference.

Allegheny is one of a few counties in the state with a health department. …