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San Francisco health chief in running to head L.A. County's massive health department

September 20, 2010 |  3:39 pm

Los Angeles county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, said Monday he believes he has identified the right person to lead the $3.4-billion-a-year Department of Health Services: Dr. Mitchell H. Katz, currently director of health for the city and county of San Francisco.

“Given the system that he runs in San Francisco and the similarities in both the mission and the type of services provided, he would be an outstanding candidate,” Fujioka said.

Fujioka said he plans to present his choice early next month to the Board of Supervisors -- who have rejected other candidates without bringing them to a vote. If appointed, Katz would start in January, Fujioka said.

It has been more than two years since the last permanent head of Los Angeles County's massive health department quit unexpectedly. Filling the job that longtime observers say can be thankless, political and, most of all, daunting, has proved challenging.

It took months for the county to hire a search firm, and then that firm told county officials that viable candidates were turned off by the perceived dysfunction of the department, which is overseen by Fujioka and the Board of Supervisors.

Katz, 50, a Brooklyn native, described himself as “pro-union,” said he enjoys the “accountability and transparency” of working in the public sector and that he hopes to overcome the “historically tense relationship” between the board and the health services chief.

“When people don’t trust the leader, then they try to know all the details, and that can be difficult for both sides,” Katz said. “My job would be to let them know that I was managing well so they didn’t have to worry about the day-to-day issues.”

Katz was hired by San Francisco’s public health department in 1991 and served as chief of research and director of the AIDS Office, director of the Emergency Medical Services Agency and director of the department’s health and safety branch before becoming chief in 1997.

As chief, Katz is paid $260,000 to supervise about 6,800 employees and a $1.5-billion budget that includes public, mental health and a healthcare system with two hospitals, San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center and Laguna Honda Hospital & Rehabilitation Center. He is responsible to a seven-member health commission appointed by the mayor and an 11-member county board of supervisors.

In Los Angeles, he would earn more (Fujioka said salary negotiations would follow the potential appointment), supervise about 18,421 employees and a $3.4-billion annual budget, coordinate with separate departments of public and mental health, and report to the contentious five-member board of supervisors. He would also have to find a way to cover a $400-million health services deficit even as demand for services increases.

“He knows California, he understands the financing. There will be no learning curve,” said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California. “He’s got the knowledge to be effective from Day One.”

If Katz is appointed, he will succeed interim director John Schunhoff, 63, who took over after the abrupt departure of Dr. Bruce Chernof in April 2008 and would stay on in the short term as a deputy director, Fujioka said.

Supervisors have considered other candidates, including Bob Sillen, former leader of the state prison healthcare system, and Daniel Snyder, a healthcare industry executive and former Navy medic; but neither came up for a vote.

In San Francisco, Katz partnered with Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2007 to create Healthy San Francisco, the nation’s first city-run universal healthcare plan. The plan provides medical access to most of the city’s uninsured, about 54,000 people, including illegal immigrants.

“I'm very proud of what I've achieved in San Francisco,” Katz said, “but Los Angeles has more than a million uninsured people. Part of what I’d be interested in is seeing if what we have done here could benefit Los Angeles.”

Katz is expected to travel to Los Angeles to meet with supervisors when they consider his appointment in closed session, possibly as soon as their Oct. 5 board meeting, Fujioka said.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske