Next Miss. health chief faces challenges

Published 9:41 pm Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Even as he was facing his own dire cancer prognosis, State Health Officer Dr. Ed Thompson remained a dedicated public servant in Mississippi.

He was battling colon cancer, but was continuing to work with the state Board of Health on a plan to ensure operations ran smoothly for some time after he was gone.

That level of commitment wasn’t surprising from Thompson. He’d been lauded by legislators, fellow physicians and others for his exemplary work at the Mississippi Department of Health during two stints as the agency’s leader.

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Thompson lost his cancer fight last week. His death leaves the state Board of Health with the task of finding someone capable of moving the agency forward.

Board chairman Dr. Luke Lampton said members will meet in early January to decide how to proceed.

The job listing for a new state health officer could go something like this: “Help wanted in Mississippi — the state with the nation’s highest obesity rate; second highest heart disease death rate and 11th highest cancer death rate. Candidate must be willing to make do with limited resources, which could dwindle more if economic conditions don’t improve.”

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland said the new chief will be “the leader of public health in the most unhealthy state in the nation. The challenges some days are virtually insurmountable.”

The next health officer also will be measured against a high standard — Thompson.

Under Thompson’s leadership that began in 1993, the state lowered tuberculosis case rates to below the national average for the first time in 30 years and pushed syphilis rates below the national average for the first time since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began keeping records. The state’s infant mortality rate had also declined.

Some of those positive trends reversed after Thompson left in 2002 and took a high-ranking job at the CDC in Atlanta. His successor was Dr. Brian Amy, who was later forced out after accusations that the department’s leadership was mired in bureaucracy and failed to warn Mississippians about diseases.

Also around that time, a series of hearings led lawmakers to reconstitute the Board of Health after allegations some members voted on issues when they had conflicts of interest.

Thompson was rehired in 2007, and everyone’s expectation was for him to put the department back on course. So when he approached the 2008 Legislature asking for millions of additional taxpayer dollars to hire more field staff and nurses, he got it.

Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee and past chairman of the Public Health Committee, said he was glad Thompson had returned to Mississippi.

“Ed Thompson served his state with distinction,” Nunnelee said. “I think it is very fitting that in the last year of his life, his colleagues honored him as the top public health officer in the United States.”

The board has appointed Dr. Mary Currier, the state epidemiologist, as interim health officer. Lampton said Thompson had a lot of confidence in Currier, and Holland praised the board’s decision to put her in charge.

“Obviously, Ed Thompson will be hard to replace. He had a depth of experience pretty much unparalleled in the nation,” said Holland, D-Plantersville.

Holland said the board will decide whether to appoint Currier permanently or conduct a national search for a replacement. Lampton makes it sound as if a national search might not be necessary.

“What is going to drive our decision-making is we want the best individual in this job and we’d like someone of Dr. Thompson’s caliber,” Lampton said. “We also don’t want to waste any of the state’s money in an extensive search unless we feel like it’s going to benefit the state.”