A familiar face was welcomed back as the new state health officer December 5. Although he’s been at the helm of the Mississippi State Department of Health (SMDH) on an interim basis, Dr. Ed Thompson agreed to take the position permanently because he feels it’s important to get the maligned agency back on track.
“We’ve repaired the damage and had a healing process,” he said. “We’ve accomplished that, but I kept coming across things I wanted to see through to the finish. The department needs someone on a permanent basis, and I was asked by the board and members of the department to consider being permanent.”
Thompson, whose resume includes nine years as state health officer and eight as state epidemiologist, was scrutinized by the Korn/Ferry firm that conducted a national search to replace Dr. Brian Amy, whose tenure was fraught with controversy.
The president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, Dr. Dwalia S. South of Ripley, said the association fully supports Thompson’s appointment.
“We have every confidence he will continue to restore the Department of Health to its previous level of prominence,” she said. “We know of Dr. Thompson’s personal commitment and his ability to quickly respond to matters of public health.”
In addition to repairing the department’s image, Thompson sees several major challenges at the SMDH. He wants to tackle the state’s rising infant mortality rate with more vigor, restore the field staff to previous levels, deal with diabetes and prevent its complications and build a new state laboratory.
“The biggest challenge is to restore communication with the public and the medical community,” he said. “That’s been done, and we just have to continue it. We’ve got to continue to earn the public’s trust. We will focus our efforts on protecting people’s health.”
South said the MSMA is especially pleased to learn that Thompson and the board are committed to restoring staff at the county level, and to the construction of a 21st century science laboratory for the state; both of which are also priorities for the association.
“Now that we have a healthier health department, the physicians of MSMA are eager to work with Dr. Thompson and the board to restore, promote and protect the health of the citizens of Mississippi,” she said.
The new lab is desperately needed to serve numerous functions, including tests on water samples, milk and clinical specimens from county health departments and private physicians. It will also be the first line of defense against bio terrorism. Thompson and the board will lobby the Legislature this session for bonds to cover the $25-million price tag for the lab.
“The lab carries critical functions all the time, and the building we have is outdated and not adequate,” Thompson said. “We have the blueprints for a new lab and space to build it on our campus.”
Increasing the number of workers at county health departments is another top priority at MSDH. The staff dropped due to lack of funding, the way funding was used and the way decisions were made.
“We’ve got to restore that level,” Thompson said. “We can’t do things without a staff. These are the people who do the work.”
Funding to restore the positions is part of the additional $16-billion budget request the department is requesting from the Legislature. Thompson said MSDH had a budget presentation before the Legislature’s budget committee in September and will have more discussions.
“We’ve already asked and will continue to ask,” he said. “We got a lot of positive feedback, but I know the state is short on revenues this year.”
South points to Thompson’s leadership in Mississippi and with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in support of his appointment. “His experience gives him the perspective to see the big picture of interdependent agencies at all levels working together,” she said. “He can convey public health needs to the Legislature to help obtain necessary funds.”
There were 200 applicants in the intense search to fill the position before the list was narrowed to eight and then to a final three at a cost of $90,550.
“At first, I did not intend to stay, so it was appropriate for them to continue the national search to look for the best person,” Thompson said. “The backing and support of the board is very important. Without that it would be difficult to go forward. We have a good board that we can work with to meet the state’s health challenges.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.