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Innovator to reshape health department in Allegheny County

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Dr. Karen Hacker, the incoming head of the Allegheny County Health Department, fields questions from the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.

When Dr. Karen Hacker takes over the Allegheny County Health Department, expect change.

An innovator who in Massachusetts brought together hospitals, universities and communities to raise low immunization rates, increase pediatric mental health screenings and reduce cases of adult diabetes, Hacker plans to reshape the department, advance new priorities and shepherd it through the complexities of federal health care reform.

“She is not there to conduct business as usual. That's not who she is,” said Dr. David A. Link, chair of the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, Mass., where Hacker was the executive director.

She will start on Tuesday, replacing acting Director Ronald Voorhees, who took over when County Executive Rich Fitzgerald ousted longtime health director Bruce Dixon in 2012. Hacker, her husband, Eric Menninger, and two dogs — CeCe, a poodle, and Jack, a Portuguese water dog — recently moved into a house near Highland Park.

She has a full agenda. She wants to address obesity, promote physical activity among county residents and improve access to health care.

“I tend to be someone who is looking toward the future,” Hacker told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday. “I really think the idea here is to try to make things better. It's just not to maintain the status quo — unless the status quo is perfect and everyone is completely happy with it.”

YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Rig Riggins said he's optimistic about Hacker's focus on obesity, which he called an epidemic. About 30 percent of adults and 12 percent of children in Pennsylvania are obese, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

“Taking an aggressive approach to mainstreaming preventative measures and weight management programs will go a long way in helping to stave-off chronic diseases, such as diabetes, which are directly linked to obesity,” Riggins said.

Hacker will make $195,000 a year, of which the Heinz Endowments will contribute $50,0000 annually. The Allegheny County Health Department, one of four county health departments in the state, employs about 350 people and has a budget this year of $27.89 million. In addition to traditional public health duties, the department oversees air quality, restaurant inspections, food safety, plumbing, waste management and water pollution.

“I do think it's very important that she makes improving air quality one of her key issues,' said Rachel Filippini, the executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, who hoped Hacker would be a “clear voice for clean air.”

When hired as director in May, Hacker said environmental issues were not her areas of expertise.

Filippini wants Hacker to continue to look at large industrial sources of air pollution, such as the Shenango Inc. coke plant on Neville Island, and work to minimize diesel emissions.

Tom Hoffman, the Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, said he hopes Hacker would build on successes in improving air quality and use her position to advocate for green solutions — such as permeable pavement, green roofs and planters designed to manage runoff — to the county's sewage overflow problem, caused when storm water overwhelms combined sewer systems.

The Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, will present the health department with new challenges as it rolls out next year. Hacker's experience in Massachusetts, where a health care overhaul passed in 2006, has prepared her for the challenges of rolling out the massive policy and its aftermath, she said. She stressed the federal mandate will change the way hospitals work with their communities and with the public health department.

“Most of us think of the (Affordable Care Act) as mostly focused on expansion and that's great,” Hacker said. “But we don't always think about what's the flip side of that. How do you serve all those populations? What does that mean for local businesses and local employers, as well as your health care delivery system?”

Regardless of the issue, Hacker plans to engage the community to develop solutions.

“I'm a community organizer at heart, so being able to get out there and actually find out what people feel are the issues they want to address and also to rally people around certain issues so we can work toward a common goal,” she said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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