An emergency room physician who has held senior posts in a Detroit medical conglomerate, a federal health care bureaucracy and a state Medicaid system is in line to take over the District's troubled Department of Health next month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced yesterday.
Gregg A. Pane, 49, was chosen from about a half-dozen applicants to head the long-troubled agency, said D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), who chairs the council's Human Services Committee and was involved in the review process. Pane's appointment will go to the council this fall for confirmation, along with his proposed base salary of $198,000.
Pane is the third Health Department director hired by the city in five years. His predecessor, James A. Buford, was ousted in March after city officials and public health experts said he failed to adequately respond to reports of lead in the drinking water. At the time of Buford's departure, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said Buford had allowed the number of Health Department vacancies and union grievances to soar.
Pane, who will begin work Sept. 7 as the acting health director, has never headed a city health agency. But he has seen urban health care problems up close as assistant director of emergency services in the biggest hospital in Orange County, Calif. He also has grappled with health care bureaucracies as medical director for the Louisiana Medicaid system for two years and as chief policy and planning officer for the Veterans Health Administration from 1996 to 2003. For the past two years, he was a senior official at Detroit's Henry Ford Health System, a network of five major hospitals, numerous clinics and an HMO.
"He has the clinical knowledge as well as the administrative background that's needed," Allen said.
The D.C. Health Department, which has a $1.5 billion budget and more than 1,400 employees, is charged with identifying public health risks and educating residents about them; preventing and controlling disease, injuries and exposure to environmental hazards; ensuring equitable access to health care throughout the city; regulating hospitals; and coordinating the medical component of the city's response to any terrorist attack.
"Our mission -- to improve care for the underserved and [eliminate] disparities -- is just too important not to succeed," Pane said yesterday at the mayor's weekly media briefing, where he was introduced. He said he would try to tap more federal dollars for new Medicaid programs in the District -- "looking at every available waiver, making sure that we're getting our fair share."
In an interview after the briefing, Pane said he would work to fill key vacancies while also trying to shore up failing programs and launch new ones. "It's like being an ER doctor," he said. "You've got to treat the patient while you're taking a full medical history."
One challenge will be increasing the number of indigent residents who enroll in and take advantage of the privatized health care system for the poor that was created in 2001 to replace D.C. General Hospital. Pane said the system, known as D.C. HealthCare Alliance, will succeed if the city "can get the word out to citizens about what services are available."
Robert A. Malson, D.C. Hospital Association president and a selection committee member, praised Pane's experience with the Veterans Health Administration, where he led planning for emergency response efforts -- a topic that looms large in the District today.
Williams said Pane initially would serve as department director as well as chief medical officer -- separate positions that in the past have been filled by two people. If Pane concludes that he needs another physician for the medical officer job, Williams said, someone will be hired.
Also yesterday, Williams appointed Lydia L. Watts as the Health Department's HIV/AIDS administrator. Watts has worked in public health for 17 years, the last four as health policy director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Prior to that, Watts worked for the Chicago Department of Public Health. Watts, who will be paid $114,000 a year, will start Sept. 7.