Beilenson: good health choice

September 17, 1992

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has made a good -- an uncharacteristically bold -- choice in nominating Dr. Peter L. Beilenson as the city's health commissioner.

The chief strength of Dr. Beilenson, 32, is his youthful eagerness to come to the grips with the many serious public health problems plaguing Baltimore, a city increasingly defined by deprivation and poverty. First as chief resident of the preventive medicine program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and then as director of the city's school health services, the physician has shown a commitment to dealing with scourges ranging from AIDS to lead poisoning.

But he is also a controversial figure. His unsuccessful bid for a City Council seat as an independent last year earned him many (( bitter enemies among establishment politicians. The fact that he has since moved from Guilford (in the Second District) to Roland Park (in the Fifth District) may have only increased the number of those who are fearful of the future political ambitions of Dr. Beilenson, son of a U.S. representative from California.

We urge the City Council to curtail its impulsive pettiness and confirm Dr. Beilenson after a serious hearing. In fact, rather than trying to lay booby traps and engage in an exercise of mutual antagonism, council members ought to use this opportunity to pick his brain and get educated about public health issues and ways of streamlining the municipal health bureaucracy. After all, Baltimore's fiscal picture is such that instead of new programs, the city has to make tough decisions about reorganizing and curtailing health services.

During his five years in office, Mayor Schmoke has tended to appoint department heads who maintain low visibility and stay out of controversy. Dr. Beilenson does not fit that mold. He is likely to be vocal and assertive. These are not bad qualities at a time when one of the main tasks of the city's health chief is to be an advocate for state and federal funding. At the same time, Dr. Beilenson's skills at diplomacy will be severely tested.

Since the departure of Dr. Maxie Collier two years ago, the health department has been run by a stand-in who could not be made commissioner because he is not a physician as required by the City Charter. Charter revision panels will soon decide whether a medical degree is still a valid requirement in today's world. But we are glad the mayor has ended his protracted attempt to circumvent the charter.

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