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Allegheny County Health Department director Hacker's adventure bodes well for region

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Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

There's something instantly likable about Dr. Karen Hacker.

The new director of the Allegheny County Health Department calls herself a schmoozer and describes her arrival in Pittsburgh as an adventure now that she and her husband are empty nesters.

The former Harvard University professor is articulate without being arrogant. At 57, she is fit and active and not a bit shy about her love of hiking and skiing. She talks about her dogs, Jack and CeCe, the way some people talk about their grandchildren.

When I met her this week, I found Hacker to be approachable, smart and genuine. Although she doesn't start her job until Tuesday, she seems ready for the challenge.

“The idea here is to make things better,” she said. “It's not just to maintain the status quo.”

Status quo at the Health Department isn't ideal, or particularly forward-thinking. More than a year ago, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald fired the late Dr. Bruce Dixon. Since then, the department has run under the temporary guidance of Ron Voorhees.

Voorhees remained under the radar while Fitzgerald searched for a permanent replacement for Dixon. Despite being a fixture in the county for more than two decades, Dixon clashed with Fitzgerald over the department's direction. Fitzgerald believed the department needed fresh blood, a message he said he heard on the campaign trail from business owners and environmental groups.

Hacker's arrival is a good sign that internal squawking will quiet.

She said she intends to pay attention to public health issues that are important to Pittsburghers: air quality, racial disparities in health care, and lack of physical activity and the surge in obesity rates.

She vowed to pay attention to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak reported at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System between February 2011 and November 2012. The VA did not inform the county Health Department of concerns about Legionella bacteria in its water distribution system until September or October 2012, way after the problem was uncovered.

Hacker appeared surprised when I told her that the department this year would not release names of facilities that reported cases of Legionnaires' disease.

“I'm a proponent of transparency,” she said.

She stopped short of saying what she would have done because she's new to the Legionnaires' debacle and needs to familiarize herself with the details. But she made it clear that if there's a cluster of people sickened at one place, whether a hospital or a restaurant, the public has a right to know.

That should be music to the collective ears of people in our region. There are serious public health issues that demand careful action, not to mention scrutiny from someone with Hacker's credentials.

I was a fan of Dr. Dixon and, if first impressions count, my hunch is that Dr. Hacker is a tailor-made successor. Her hiring has all the elements of a big win for the county.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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