Ob/gyn to oversee public health system

A Carrollton ob/gyn will direct Georgia’s beleaguered public health system.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald will preside over a unit that faces major financial and administrative challenges. She will begin her duties Feb. 21.

“Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald is a trusted leader on health care issues, and she has dedicated her professional life to serving her nation and her community,’’ Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday in a statement as her selection was announced. “Dr. Fitzgerald served as the top health care adviser on my transition committee, and her work and insight will continue to benefit the people of our state.”

Dr. Fitzgerald has practiced medicine for three decades. As director of the Division of Public Health, Dr. Fitzgerald will oversee the unit’s seven main program areas, which include health promotion and disease prevention; maternal and child health; infectious disease and immunization; environmental health; and epidemiology.

She will direct the state’s 18 health districts and 159 county health departments.

Dr. Fitzgerald ”will bring expertise, energy and commitment to addressing our state’s critical public health needs,” said David Cook, the commissioner of the state Department of Community Health, which oversees Public Health.

Dr. Fitzgerald was not available for an interview Tuesday.

The position she will assume ‘’is a significant management job,’’ said Russ Toal, a Georgia Southern University health policy professor, and past president of the Georgia Public Health Association. Toal said he did not know whether Dr. Fitzgerald had public health experience.

But as an ob/gyn, Toal said, “she is familiar with women’s health and children’s health issues.’’

‘’ I’m sure she understands the need to reach out to people with public health experience,’’ he said. “I’m confident that she will.’’

Dr. Fitzgerald has served on the board and as president of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society. In the 1990s she
was a health care policy adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell. She has served as chairman of the board of governors for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

She will take over at a time of substantial public health needs across the state. Georgia ranks low among states on several health indicators, including infant mortality, childhood obesity, infectious disease and cardiovascular deaths.

Yet Public Health, with a $600 million budget and more than 1,000 employees, is scheduled for cuts under Deal’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012. The state’s public health system has undergone budget reductions in past years, and Georgia trails other Southeastern states in per-capita spending.

A recent independent audit, meanwhile, found several problems in Public Health’s financial controls. Public Health moved from another agency to Community Health in July 2009, and the switch created financial documentation problems, noted the audit by Metcalf Davis and Mauldin & Jenkins.

In addition, Georgia Health News reported in November that a state spreadsheet showed that three managed-care companies owed a total of $12 million to Public Health for children’s vaccines. That situation had not been resolved as of late January.

A state commission last year recommended that Public Health become an independent agency for greater visibility and accountability, among other reasons.

Commission Chairman Phillip Williams said Tuesday that he did not know much about Dr. Fitzgerald but that she appears to be interested in the panel’s work. “I strongly feel that the state would be best served to have a stand-alone public health agency,’’ said Williams, the dean of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

There exists ‘’a tremendous need to improve public health in Georgia,’’ he said. “Additional resources are needed.’’