|Dr. Hiram Polk|
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
During his 14 months as state health commissioner, Dr. Hiram Polk said he was on a mission to implement an early-childhood education program to teach young children how to live healthy, drug-free lives.
He says that when he learned in September that there would be no more money for the program, he resigned, leaving what he called "a toxic environment" that makes the work difficult.
“The purpose of my disagreement was how to spend some newly saved money in the Department for Public Health, a middle-management kind of disagreement," he said in a telephone interview.
Polk said in a later phone interview that the disagreement was with Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, who later resigned as secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to run for Congress in Louisville.
Polk said the argument was over whether some "new money" that became available was state money or health-department money, and that he had been "clear" with Glisson that he would leave if the money was not awarded to the department for his early-childhood drug-education program.
“It was strictly a fight over this thing," he said. "And by that time I was having trouble with what I thought was a stroke, but was indeed just a slow heartbeat."
Polk, 82, added that he was "feeling terrible" when he left, and a week after he resigned he got a pace-maker.
“I've felt a lot better over the last few months, but I think that's more because of the pacemaker," he said. "It's a little bit about being out of Frankfort, but mostly because of the pacemaker."
He said there has been "a lot of turnover" in personnel at the cabinet, and "I'd have to say it's a toxic environment."
Polk wouldn't expand on his description, other than to say that several key leadership positions, including Glisson's, are still open, adding, "I just think it's a difficult place to work. . . . It's just a very unpleasant environment."
Polk said he didn't know how much of that is because that's just the way it is in Frankfort or if it has to do with the current administration. He pointed out that he was just "a medical-school guy over here in Louisville" whose only prior experience with politics was to vote.
Polk is a world-renowned surgeon and retired professor of surgery at the University of Louisville, for whom the U of L surgery department is named. He remains a professor emeritus at the university.
Cabinet spokesman Doug Hogan said in an e-mail that the agency doesn't comment on personnel issues and there was "no new money," or "obligated funds" to use for Polk's education project.
"The early-childhood education projects were funded out of DPH cash balances," Hogan said. "There was never a funding stream or sustainability plan for these projects."
Polk said, "We saved a good bit of money to use for some childhood-education things, and there was no agreement on how to spend it."
As part of Polk's initiative, the DPH distributed nearly $943,000 to 28 school districts statewide for "Early Childhood Healthy Living" in August, reaching 96 schools. The one-time awards varied between $15,000 and $40,000 per school district to support "evidence-based" programs to teach children healthy life choices and to avoid drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The programs targeted preschool through fourth grade.
Asked what would happen to the program, Hogan said, "Due to difficult fiscal times, especially with the state’s pension crisis, we are not able to fund the program moving forward."
Ohio recently adopted an early childhood drug-abuse-prevention program that starts in kindergarten, but because of Ohio laws, the state can't mandate universal health-education standards. This has prompted state lawmakers to work on a bill to change the law, Sarah Vander Schaaff reports for The Washington Post.
"Instead of relying on scare tactics about drug use or campaigns that recite facts about drugs' toll on the body, teachers are encouraged to discuss real-life situations and ways to deal with them and to build the social and emotional skills that experts say can reduce the risk of substance abuse," Schaaff writes about Ohio's Health and Opioid Prevention Education, or HOPE, program.
Polk told Kentucky Health News in September 2016, after being in the position a few months, "If there is a secret to drug, tobacco and alcohol addiction, it is through very early childhood education. I believe that."
He said recently that looking at it selfishly, leaving Frankfort was the best thing he could have done for himself, but he still hoped someone else would come along and champion this "wonderful" project.
But he also said, "Idealism doesn't go very far in Frankfort.”