Dr. Herbert Nickens, a psychiatrist, reportedly has been chosen to head the new Office of Minority Health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The office was established by former HHS secretary Margaret M. Heckler last October, after an HHS task force reported that nearly 60,000 "excess deaths" a year occur among black Americans. Excess deaths are defined as deaths that would not have occurred if the death rate of blacks were the same as that of whites.

Nickens, 38, director of the office of policy, planning and analysis in the National Institute on Aging, said he was notified of his new appointment by HHS officials Thursday.

A spokeswoman for HHS would not confirm or deny the choice of Nickens and said formal announcement of the appointment would not be made until "next week at the earliest," following "front-office introductions and agency protocol."

The Office of Minority Affairs will be responsible for implementing the task force's recommendations and monitoring the myriad HHS programs that deal with the health of minorities.

Heckler allocated $3 million for its first budget.

The task force report attributed more than 80 percent of the excess deaths among black Americans and other minority groups to six causes: heart disease, homicide, cancer, low birth weight, cirrhosis and diabetes.

In releasing the task force report last October, Heckler termed the disparity between minorities and whites "an affront to our ideals and to the genius of American medicine."

She proposed no major government initiatives or spending, but called for added efforts "to inform minority Americans about the connection between personal behavior and these life-threatening conditions."

Nickens, a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, was raised in the District. Before joining the National Institute on Aging last year, he was deputy chief of the Center on Aging at the National Institute on Mental Health.

Dr. Clarice Reid, chief of the sickle cell disease branch at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, confirmed that she turned down an offer to head the new office. She said she did not want to change jobs.