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.
“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.”
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.
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.”