Beilenson figures in plan to upgrade health service

Ulman says he wants to raise profile of programs

February 07, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Hiring former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson to be Howard County's health officer is part of a larger plan to upgrade county health services, County Executive Ken Ulman said yesterday.

Ulman and Beilenson formally announced the change in leadership at a news conference yesterday in Ellicott City. Ulman said he had been thinking during last year's political campaigns of ways to raise the profile of health programs in the county.

"Why can't Howard County be a model public health county?" Ulman said he was thinking. He said that hiring Beilenson, who turned 47 yesterday, to replace Dr. Penny Borenstein, a pediatrician who got the job in late 2001, is one key to those plans.

He said he found no fault with Borenstein, but the opportunity to hire someone of Beilenson's "character and caliber" drove the decision.

Borenstein, who once worked under Beilenson in Baltimore, said in an e-mail sent to her staff that she had improved the department: "I take great pride in how, together with an astounding group of smart, skilled and dedicated staff, we have been able to move the agency light years ahead."

She mentioned expanded services for drug treatment, oral health, a new program for private well testing, a stop-smoking program and others as examples.

Mark Breaux, president of Smoke Free Howard County, said Borenstein strongly supported passage of the county's no-smoking law last year.

Beilenson said his goal is prevention of drug abuse and diseases such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and to provide good school services for children in what he called "results-based accountability."

That means measuring outcomes every two weeks, he said.

Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of the Horizon Foundation, said he is eagerly awaiting Beilenson's arrival.

"Peter's got the grasp of the big picture," Krieg said, and the county, although prosperous, has serious and growing health care problems. The county has 20,000 uninsured residents with limited or no health care access, as well as problems with cancer and heart disease, Krieg said.

"It's a mistake to think Howard doesn't have serious health issues. The Health Department paid $150,000 last year for translation services," he said, referring to a growing immigrant population.

"I believe he'll make a real difference here," Krieg said.

County Council members seem to agree.

"I am very impressed with Dr. Beilenson," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat. Ball and two other Democrats on the council, Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa, said they got to know Beilenson a bit last summer as he campaigned for Congress in the county.

"He's talented and energetic," said Terrasa, who represents the southeastern county. Sigaty, of west Columbia, said Beilenson's hiring is "pretty cool."

"He certainly comes with an incredible list of credentials," she said.

Beilenson cannot assume the $141,400 job until next month, when the County Council is to vote on his selection and when state officials must concur.

County health officers are state officials, with $128,000 of their pay coming from state coffers. Howard adds a $13,400 supplement. Beilenson's pay will be the same as Borenstein's.

"We will, in four to six weeks, announce a specific public health agenda, including a children's agenda," Ulman said.

Beilenson's expertise in that area, as well as his 13 years in Baltimore when he did planning for what to do in case of a pandemic or a terrorist incident, were key factors in offering him the job, Ulman said.

Beilenson said easing access to health care for the poor, uninsured and immigrants will be another focus of the county's plans.

His years of experience and his ability to get things done made Beilenson - a Harvard graduate and a physician with a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health - far too attractive not to hire, Ulman said.

"The opportunity to bring somebody like Dr. Beilenson to Howard County was really the driving force" in making a change in leadership, Ulman said. "I was just really struck by this opportunity to elevate the Health Department and make it more prominent."

Beilenson said he plans to bring his former chief of staff, Dawn O'Neill, 37, to be his deputy director and also Michael Tankersley, 27, to Howard County with him. Both worked on his unsuccessful congressional campaign.

Ulman said Patricia Moore, Borenstein's deputy, also is expected to resign. He said Borenstein submitted her resignation Monday but will serve two more weeks. An interim director will bridge the gap until Beilenson takes over.

Chris Beilenson, the health officer-designate's wife, and their sons, Jack, 3, and Hank, 1, accompanied him to the news conference in the George Howard Building. Peter Beilenson has three older children, 17, 18, and 22, from an earlier marriage.

The family lives in the Cedarcroft section of Baltimore but is considering moving to Howard County, he said.

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