This Week in the Mercury


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

BREAKING: State Public Health Director to Step Down

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Tue, May 28, 2013 at 3:16 PM

Oregon's public health director is leaving the position, amid a threatened lawsuit and accusations the agency colluded with pro-fluoride advocates on the release of an oral health report.

Dr. Mel Kohn today sent an e-mail out to colleagues at the Oregon Health Authority, saying he'll step down as head of the OHA's Public Health Department Division beginning August 1. Kohn's been with the agency for 14 years, and has served as Oregon's top health official for five.

"It's time for me to explore some new professional challenges," the e-mail says. "I am very proud of what we have accomplished together during my time at PHD."

As is often the case with these kinds of messages, neither Kohn's e-mail, nor another from OHA Director Bruce Goldberg, nod to some of the strife the public health department's seen in recent weeks and months.

As reported by the Mercury, Kohn was the target of a recent discrimination complaint from a former top public health official fired from the agency in February. That former employee, Jean O'Connor, has also filed notice she might sue the agency, claiming Kohn discriminated against her and other female employees.

An internal investigation into those claims unearthed no evidence of bad acting on Kohn's part, but did find many public health employees described working conditions at the agency as "difficult and untenable, citing low morale and high work volume."

In response to that conclusion, Goldberg told the Mercury: "The investigation identified significant concerns in the [Oregon] Public Health Division relating to staff morale. I and my leadership team are working closely with the leadership at the public health division to address and remedy those issues."

But when asked today whether he'd played a role in Kohn's departure, Goldberg declined to comment. Goldberg, returning the Mercury's call Wednesday, said he played no part in forcing Kohn's departure.

"This was Mel’s choice," Goldberg says. "He’s been in the job for five years and decided it was time for a change."

The agency also has come under fire from anti-fluoride advocates, who have suggested state officials colluded with pro-fluoride campaigners to delay a study finding reduced cavity rates in the state's schoolchildren. A review of e-mails surrounding the issue didn't reveal any evidence of a conspiracy to delay the report but, as the Oregonian pointed out, did suggest at least one state official felt pressure from fluoride proponents.

In an interview today, Kohn said neither situation led to his departure.

"I'm at a stage in my life and in my career that this is a time for me to think about what is the next step is for me career-wise," he said. "This is really unrelated."

Kohn noted he'd been at the helm five years, saying that's longer than most health directors stay on, nationally. He said he'd been thinking of leaving the agency since before the situation with O'Connor arose.

"These are very challenging jobs," he said. "The average tenure is right around three years for state health officials. It's just a question of finding the right time to do this."

I asked Kohn what he thinks attributed to the poor morale at the agency, and whether he's faced pressure to leave as a result. He said he hasn't.

"It's a difficult time to be working in government, especially when resources are so constrained," Kohn said, by way of explaining the apparently low spirits of his employees. "I think there are always stresses and strains."

I also asked Kohn what he makes, and he claimed not to know the exact number. State-supplied salary data makes it tough to divine the salaries of individuals without knowing the exact bureaucratic title assigned to them, but it appears Kohn makes well over $200,000. According to one database, he made $195,326 in 2010. According to an OHA spokeswoman, he makes roughly $175,000 annually.

I've pasted Kohn's full e-mail to colleagues below:

Colleagues:

I’m writing this to let you know that I will be resigning as Public Health Director as of August 1. I’ve been at the Public Health Division (PHD) fourteen years, including almost five years as the Public Health Director and State Public Health Officer, and it’s time for me to explore some new professional challenges. To ensure a smooth transition to my successor and to tie up several projects I will be continuing with the OHA Director’s Office as a Senior Advisor for Public Health temporarily.

I am very proud of what we have accomplished together during my time at PHD. To name a few of our most visible accomplishments:

· We’ve been active participants in the first steps of health system transformation and the Early Learning Council, and are poised to do even more in these areas in the future.
· We led the state’s response to numerous communicable disease outbreaks, including the H1N1 pandemic
· We’ve substantially grown our capacity to address chronic diseases and injuries, the leading causes of death and disability for Oregonians
· We’ve strengthened and focused our regulatory programs.
· We’ve begun rebuilding our EMS and Trauma systems
· We’ve built the Oregon Environmental Public Health Tracking Network and the Oregon Violent Death Reporting System
· We’ve modernized and “electronified” our vital records systems
· We’ve worked with numerous partners to create a vision for a home visiting system that leverages the contributions of agencies and organizations across the state
· We’ve built and grown a statewide public health preparedness system
· We’ve reorganized the Division to better meet the public health threats and opportunities of the future
· We’ve enhanced the working relationships across state and local public health and built a joint leadership team to guide our system moving forward
· We’ve established or strengthened relationships with other agencies to help ensure that public health impacts are considered in policymaking outside of the traditional health sphere.
· We’ve created a strategic plan and a health improvement plan, and we’re close to getting PHD and several county health departments nationally accredited.
· We’ve become more sophisticated in our communications, and much more visible as a result.

This is not by any means a complete list of our accomplishments during my tenure, but you get the idea: we’ve done some incredible things together! And I am confident that this legacy will help ensure that PHD will continue to make an important contribution moving forward.

You are an incredibly talented and resourceful group of people, and I could not have asked for better colleagues during my time at PHD. As I move into the next chapter in my career I hope that you will keep in touch and that our personal and professional paths will cross many times in the future.

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