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Dr. Terry Mason to become chief medical officer for Cook County

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Fran Spielman

Dr. Terry Mason -- the moonlighting radio talk show host who tried to trim Chicago's collective waist-line -- has resigned as the city's $177,156-a-year health commissioner to become chief medical officer for the Cook County health system.

Mayor Daley called Mason's departure "a plus" for Chicago because it will help to break down longstanding barriers impeding regional health care.

In the new job, Mason will oversee doctors at Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest hospitals, along with a prison hospital and 16 clinics.

The County Board paved the way for the change a year ago when it created an independent health system outside the control of County Board President Todd Stroger.

"The position he's taking is tremendous for us. ... That is an asset. He goes from local here and then he goes to the county," Daley said.

"You can't have the federal system, the state, the non-for-profits, the city and everybody else. It has to be one system. You have to have everybody working together. You can't build silos in health care. And that's what you have. You have silos in health care. ... You have to break all of these barriers down."

Mason, 59, is a former chief of urology at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center who has spent the last 16 years as moonlighting host of the WVON-AM Radio program, "Doctor in the House."

In nearly four years as Chicago's health commissioner, he has grappled with a steady stream of budget cuts that have reduced the city's overworked army of food sanitarians and forced Daley to once again consider closing mental health clinics amid repeated protests.

Shortly after his appointment, Mason launched a citywide crusade against obesity that started at City Hall -- with a promise to issue "report cards" for the mayor and aldermen.

At the time, Mason said he was "deeply moved" by the sudden death of former Mayor Harold Washington, who dropped dead at his desk of a massive heart attack in November, 1987 after a noticeable weight gain.

Urging Chicagoans to "slim down and trim down," he said, "We will look at how we become [one of] the fittest cities in America," instead of one of the fattest.

Earlier this year, Mason was put on the defensive when an audit by the inspector general's office revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of controlled substances, vaccines and birth control pills have either expired or may have been "stolen or misplaced" because of lax security and record-keeping at a now-shuttered Health Department warehouse.

The Central Pharmacy warehouse, 1820 N. Besly Court, was created to save the city money through bulk purchases and time by maintaining a $3 million cache of drugs and medical supplies that could be quickly delivered to city health clinics.

But the audit concluded that neither goal was accomplished. In fact, taxpayer-funded pharmaceuticals may have walked out the warehouse door.

Computer billing problems tied to the Health Department's 2007 switch to an electronic system of keeping medical records were also blamed for a $1.2 million drop in state funding that put four mental health clinics on the chopping block.

Mason said he recently completed a report titled, "The Chicago Health Care Access Puzzle: Fitting the Pieces Together." It highlighted the need for, what he called an "intact and functioning" Cook County system.

"This opportunity allows me to bring my expertise to help them do that. I'm looking forward to it," he said.

As for the city's network of mental health and public health clinics, Mason said Chicago is doing "the best we can with what we have" and there are "tough choices" ahead because of the city's budget crisis.

Asked whether it's time that the city get out of the public health business, Mason said, "The city can't just hand it over to the county." But, he said, "It's time to have a conversation about all of the assets that both the city and county have to determine what's best to be done by whom."

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