Alaska hires new top doctor

Posted: Sunday, September 06, 2009

Dr. Ward Hurlburt was appointed Thursday to be Alaska's new chief medical officer and Public Health director. He returns to public service in Alaska where he earlier spent a long career with the Indian Health Service.

Hurlburt replaces Dr. Jay Butler, former chief medical officer, and Bev Wooley, former Director of Public Health, who left office amid controversy near the end of former Gov. Sarah Palin's term of office.

Hurlburt said he expects his most pressing duty will be ensuring the state is prepared to respond to the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, if need be, but then to also find ways to deal with some of Alaska's ongoing public health issues.

"Obviously, the big thing is the pandemic preparedness," he said.

So far, he said, the flu has not turned out to be as bad as was initially feared and has had a relatively small impact compared to the normal seasonal flu.

"The big part is making sure here in Alaska we're in the best position we can be if the virus mutates and gets worse," he said.

Alaska also has serious problems with a number of chronic issues, such as tobacco, obesity and drug addiction that have serious health consequences he said. If the state can help people make better decisions about their own lives, they can live longer with fewer health problems, he said.

"We die, to a large extent, through diseases of choice," Hurlburt said.

State Sen. Donny Olson, a medical doctor and leader on health issues in the Legislature, praised the hire.

"He has my highest recommendation, and I look forward to working with him," the Democrat from Nome said.

Olson said he first met Hurlburt as a medical student in Kotzebue, and as a doctor later referred patients to him. Hurlburt has both the Alaska background and the skills to deal with Alaska's public health problems, he said.

"And the temperament to do well in the job," Olson said.

Hurlburt came to Alaska in 1961, working as a doctor for the Indian Health Services in a variety of Alaska communities, and retired from that position in 1993. He retired this year from a new job working in managed care as a vice president, chief medical officer and consultant in Oregon, Washington and Utah and returned to Alaska.

At age 74, he applied for the new public health job opening in the state.

"You don't normally think of starting a new job at that age," he acknowledged, but said he remained both energetic and interested in taking on the new challenge.

"I continue to find the whole area of public health interesting, and I'm quite enthusiastic about it," he said.

Commissioner of Health and Social Services Bill Hogan said Hurlburt was bringing "broad and invaluable" ties to Alaska with him and firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing the state.

"We couldn't be happier with the level of experience and expertise Dr. Hurlburt brings to our team," Hogan said.

Hurlburt's predecessors said they were forced out by Palin, after clashing with her insistence that they support her anti-abortion views before the Alaska Legislature. A Palin administrationspokeswoman denied that.

Palin was pushing parental consent and parental notification legislation, but drew criticism from some of her political allies when members of her administration failed to support those issues before legislative committees.

Hurlburt said he was not asked any "litmus test" questions when he was interviewing for the job, but believes he is in step with new Gov. Sean Parnell's conservative views and his efforts to strengthen families.

"I think they are very comfortable that I would be a strong supporter of the policies of the governor," he said.

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