New Ohio health director's background questioned

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Critics of Ohio Gov. John Kasich are questioning his decision to nominate a non-physician to lead the state Department of Health.

Kasich has appointed Rick Hodges, the executive director of the state's turnpike commission, as Ohio's next health director. He says Hodges has proven management skills. The governor also named public health clinician Dr. Mary Applegate as the agency's interim medical director and said she'll support Hodges by focusing on medical issues.

"Ohio's public health responsibilities cover a wide range of complex issues, requiring a team of people with a rare mix of skills," Kasich said in a Friday statement.

The state's largest physician-led organization and a hospital group have praised the pairing.

Dr. Mary Wall, president of the Ohio State Medical Association, said in statement that the leadership approach "holds great promise for the immediate future of Ohio's medical community." The Ohio Hospital Association also welcomed the two, saying they bring diverse health care leadership and clinical experience to the agency.

But an abortion rights group has criticized Kasich's choice for director and pointed to state requirements that say the department leader should be either: a physician holding the degree of doctor of medicine from a medical college approved by the state medical board, with a license to practice medicine in Ohio; or a person with significant experience in the public health profession.

"Governor Kasich's appointment of Mr. Hodges to lead our state's health department is an affront to the people of Ohio, and demonstrates that Kasich is more concerned about politics than the health and well-being of Ohioans," said Jaime Miracle, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

A spokeswoman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald has called on Kasich to withdraw Hodges' nomination. Lauren Hitt said in a statement that the nominee "has what can only be described at best as 'limited health care experience.'"

In the last 30 years, only two directors of the Ohio Department of Health have not been doctors, according to the state agency.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols brushed aside the criticism of Hodges and defended his experience.

"Of course we know that he's qualified or we never would have appointed him, but to give credence to the predictable, shrill attacks from partisan activists like these is puzzling," Nichols said in an email.

Hodges was a state representative in the 1990s. A resume released by the governor's office shows that his previous work includes a stint at the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, where he focused on improving concepts of care for injured workers. He also held top positions at the Metropolitan Builders Association in Milwaukee and the Tucson Association of REALTORS in Arizona.

As executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Northwest Ohio in the early 2000s, Hodges said he worked on employee health plans and helped create a model for drug testing, substance abuse rehabilitation and safety training programs. From 1998 to 2000, he was director of planning and marketing at the Fulton County Health Center. Prior to that job, he worked for four years as director of the Community Hospitals of Williams County.

The state's former health director, Dr. Theodore Wymyslo, stepped down in February. The Ohio Senate, which is on summer break, must approve Hodge's nomination.


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