State health commissioner retiring after seven years in the job, fighting for public health and expanding its role

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

After dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, an anthrax scare, H1N1 flu, the worst ice storm in Kentucky’s history and a series of budget cuts, it’s been a busy decade for Dr. William Hacker at the state health department. But after 10 years at the agency, seven as its boss, Hacker will retire at the end of the month.

He is getting great reviews for his work as commissioner, which has included expanding the role of public health beyond its traditional roles, including disaster response and prevention.

“Dr. Hacker has always provided quality leadership,” said Scott Lockard, president of the Kentucky Public Health Association. “He has been a great advocate for public health. He has been well respected both in state and on the national level and he will be deeply missed.”

“Dr. William Hacker has been an exemplary leader for public health and has led by example with his professional and genteel leadership style,” said Linda Sims, director of the Lincoln Trail District Health Department and president of the Kentucky Health Department Association. “Dr. Hacker has been instrumental in helping local health departments during budgetary challenges with guidance and support. The development of new services and screenings for children have increased under his efforts that will make a difference for many years to come.”

Hacker, a native of Manchester, joined the department in February 2001 to work in the maternal and child health division. He’d practiced as a pediatrician in Corbin for 18 years and subsequently spent six years with Appalachian Regional Health Care.

Just eight months after he came on board at the health department, his role expanded drastically. “On 9/11, we were asked how many burn beds we had available in Kentucky because they felt they would be flying burn victims to us,” he said. “We had never had funding to establish the ability to actually track the beds available. Public health did not have a role to play in critical health care. But they called on public health that day.”

Three weeks later, suspicious white powder started appearing in the mail, and public health offices nationwide were called again. Though anthrax spores were not found in Kentucky, envelopes containing white powder were, and they needed to be tested by public-health officials.

Dr. Rice Leach, then the commissioner, asked Hacker to establish the Public Health Preparedness Branch of the Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning, marking a major shift for the department. Traditionally, public health had not been involved in incident management, which occurs when first responders are sent in to handle a crisis. “We were the backup to deal with consequence management,” Hacker said. “But when you’re dealing with bioterrorism, public health needs to step in. There was a lot of learning that went on between law enforcement, emergency medical services and public health. That was a cultural shift. We were forced through the natural evolution of events to step up to the plate.”

In 2004, following Leach’s retirement, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher named Hacker commissioner. He established the Kentucky Outreach and Information Network, which expanded the department’s ability to reach vulnerable populations like senior citizens and people with language, hearing or motor difficulties. Partnerships are still in place with other state agencies, Family Resource Youth Service Centers, literacy programs and faith-based organizations such as the Christian Appalachian Project. “We’d say, ‘Here’s the message we need to get out, whether we were talking about a hot weather advisory or how long is it safe to eat food out of your refrigerator if your electricity is out,” he said.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, prompting several thousand people to come to Kentucky. “We had to figure out how to take care of these people without any resources and many times without any family connections,” Hacker said. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike followed, presenting similar challenges.

The next major disaster was the 2009 ice storm. The role of public health was to provide shelter, which Hacker called “a major challenge.” But emergency stockpiles obtained by the Public Health Preparedness Branch proved useful. “We use cots, satellite radios and generators that were supposed to be used for an inflatable hospital,” he said. “That provided power in Elizabethtown.”

Emergency stockpiles were also tapped for items like face masks in 2009-10, when people started getting sick with H1N1. “We responded efficiently because of the training we had been planning for,” Hacker said. In 2006, department officials prepared extensively for a bird flu “that is still smoldering,” Hacker said, but has never reached the ability to spread quickly from person to person.

In the middle of all this, the state changed governors, but not health commissioners. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who took office in December 2007, appointed a new secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, but showed confidence in Hacker by keeping him as commissioner of the cabinet’s Department of Public Health. “I was prepared for Gov. Beshear to select someone else, but I was very pleased when he gave me the opportunity to continue to serve,” Hacker said. Apart from Leach and Dr. Carlos Hernandez, Hacker has served one of the longest terms of any commissioner in the past 40 years.

Beshear told Kentucky Health News in July 2011, “Dr. Hacker’s commitment to public health and education is unassailable, and he provided great leadership and vision for our Department of Public Health. Dr. Hacker built teams, mentored, encouraged and connected organizations and people to achieve better outcomes for Kentuckians’ health. His success is largely driven by his belief in inclusion — that bringing together many organizations can improve health in Kentucky. Kentucky will miss him.”

Beshear’s retention of Hacker greatly pleased Al Smith, who had just concluded 33 years as producer and founding host of “Comment on Kentucky” on KET. A former newspaper publisher in London and Western Kentucky, Smith helped Hacker campaign for a comprehensive hospital to serve Corbin and London. “He was ahead of his time, as usual, and we lost the political game,” Smith recalled. “Fortunately, his great gifts have been appreciated by the state and other health providers who have kept him in leadership for many years. I hope there will be other opportunities for his influence and service at another time. . . . In or out of public service, Dr. Bill Hacker is a leader who always seeks the best for Kentucky.”

Asked his biggest accomplishment, Hacker named two: leaving behind a capable team and establishing the Preparedness Branch, which he said is now deeply embedded. “I have a personal relationship with senior FBI agents that did not exist before,” he said. “We have a very close partnership with emergency management officials. And we’re close with the Department of Agriculture because of the correlation between animal diseases and human diseases. All those partnerships have positioned Kentucky’s government entities to be more responsive.”

That responsiveness, however, has a lot to do with funding, which Hacker said is his biggest worry, because public health tends to be invisible. “If you ask, most people think public health just takes care of poor people. We, in fact, take care of all forms of people. It’s just we do our jobs well and so it’s invisible to those folks unless they need a public health service.”

Already, Hacker has dealt with several rounds of budget cuts and is worried that “political leaders and the public don’t really understand the impact of what the future may look like” with a less well funded public health system. “It could mean slower response to diseases, slower response to disasters, less cervical cancer screening, less prenatal care. There’s a whole host of services being provided but they cost money,” he said.

Still, though it’s not without concern for the future of the department, Hacker, 64, said it’s time to head home. He will continue to live in Lexington. “My wife has some health problems and for 44 years she’s made sacrifices to support my career. I think the time has come to reverse the equation,” he said. “My decision to leave was a difficult one because I love the mission of public health. But it became clear to me that this was the right time to transition from employment to retirement. I will continue to support the mission of public health in any way I can contribute.”

Dr. Steve Davis, longtime deputy commissioner of the department, will take over as interim commissioner Aug. 1. He called Hacker “a good doc and a good man. Simply put, we have been blessed to have him for many years.”

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