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Allegheny County Health Department names Massachusetts doctor as next director

| Friday, May 31, 2013, 2:06 p.m.
Dr. Karen Hacker speaks to reporters after being named the new Allegheny County Health Department director at County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's office in the County Courthouse on May 31, 2013.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dr. Karen Hacker speaks to reporters after being named the new Allegheny County Health Department director at County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's office in the County Courthouse on May 31, 2013.
Dr. Karen Hacker speaks Friday, May 31, 2013, at her introduction as Allegheny County's new Health Department director. She comes to the county from Massachusetts.
Andrew Russell | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Dr. Karen Hacker speaks Friday, May 31, 2013, at her introduction as Allegheny County's new Health Department director. She comes to the county from Massachusetts.
Dr. Karen Hacker, the new Allegheny County Health Department director (left) laughs with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald after a press conference announcing Hacker's appointment as director at the County Executives' office at the County Courthouse, Friday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dr. Karen Hacker, the new Allegheny County Health Department director (left) laughs with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald after a press conference announcing Hacker's appointment as director at the County Executives' office at the County Courthouse, Friday.

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. It employs about 350 people and has a budget this year of $27.89 million.

The county will pay Hacker's total salary if foundation support dries up after four years, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said. The University of Pittsburgh helped offset some of the $150,000 former director Dr. Bruce Dixon was paid. Fitzgerald said the county made its arrangement with the Heinz Endowments before a candidate was chosen.

The search committee chose five finalists from 16 candidates culled by search firm Waldron. Shapira declined to identify other finalists.

The board interviewed Hacker and must approve her hiring at its next meeting in July. Shapira and Fitzgerald said other board members, some of whom joined them at the news conference, support the move. The state Department of Health also must approve.

Shapira said Fitzgerald “provided leadership” but did not use a heavy hand in Hacker's choice. Fitzgerald attracted criticism during his first year in office last year by ousting several department heads, including Dixon, who had led the health department since 1992. Dixon sued over his removal but died in February before the lawsuit was resolved.

Fitzgerald complained that Dixon did not replace departing managers and left the department disorganized. He said the board and acting Director Dr. Ronald Voorhees made some changes, but he expects Hacker to “put her team of people in place.”

The department is working on meeting federal air-quality standards and implementing a restaurant-grading system that Fitzgerald seeks. Fitzgerald said he would let Hacker make decisions on the grading, which he said will not be a “pass/fail” system.

Hacker, an Illinois native, has leadership positions with the Cambridge Health Alliance, which runs the health department there. She has two grown sons and is married to Eric Menninger, who will seek a high school teaching job here.

“I am delighted to see her take on a very challenging role that will leverage the skills she has honed at Cambridge Health Alliance to help improve the health of the residents and communities in Allegheny County,” said Patrick Wardell, Cambridge Health Alliance CEO.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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