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Health Services director Humble can’t shake ‘interim’ tag

One of Gov. Jan Brewer’s first interim agency heads may be the last to learn if he will get the job on a permanent basis.

Will Humble was named in January as the interim director at the Arizona Department of Health Services, replacing January Contreras.

Nearly eight months later, Brewer has nearly finished filling the department head positions that traditionally change when a new governor takes residence on the Ninth Floor.

Humble, who has been with the agency since 1992, said he doesn’t pay much attention to the qualifier in front of his title.

“There’s plenty of stuff to do without worrying what my title is. I don’t think about it that much, and honestly I don’t know that my staff really thinks about it that much either,” he said. “I’m not reading anything into it. I’m really not.”

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said he doesn’t know the governor’s plans for the position, or whether she plans to keep Humble on as permanent director. He also was unsure how many other agency heads were still in their jobs on an interim basis.

Sen. Linda Lopez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Healthcare and Medical Liability Reform Committee, said she has not heard of any moves to replace Humble and said her “understanding is that he’s done a fairly good job.”

The one concern Lopez has, she said, is that Humble lacks experience in behavioral health issues, which the Tucson Democrat cited as a major issue for her.

Behavioral health also happens to be a major issue for Brewer, who built a reputation in the Legislature and at the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors as an ardent advocate for the mentally ill. Lopez said did not know whether Humble’s lack of mental health credentials would influence Brewer’s decision to keep him on the job.

Rep. David Bradley, another Tucson Democrat, also cited Humble’s lack of experience in behavioral health, which he said takes up more than 70 percent of the agency’s budget. But that was the only shortcoming of which Bradley was aware.

“What I have heard has been positive, that the employees … enjoy working with him and feel that he has been a little bit of a breath of fresh air. To the extent that one can be nonpolitical in that position, I think he’s managed to do that,” said Bradley, a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee. “He’s come up through the system and probably knows it better than some of the folks who have been appointed.”

Sherri Walton, of Mental Health America’s Arizona chapter, said Humble has had little involvement with mental health issues since taking over as interim director, and she was left with the impression that he did not expect to have the job permanently. Because some question whether Brewer will be governor past 2010, Walton said any potential permanent replacements may be hesitant to take the job because they may not hold it for long before being replaced by a new governor.

“He’s made no secret of the fact that he is interim director,” Walton said. “Unfortunately, it’s a time where we have budget issues that are affecting a lot of the public health programs, staff issues and certainly the behavioral health system. So it’s not a great time to have a director who really only plans on being an interim director.”

While he may lack mental health experience, his deep résumé on other public health issues may put him in good stead as the state braces for an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza, more commonly referred to as swine flu.

In addition to improving the performance of the state’s troubled mental health-treatment system and improving the state’s licensure system to focus on major violations, “and not Mickey Mouse kinds of violations,” Humble listed the H1N1 preparations as one of his top priorities.

Humble said he knows Brewer also has a lot competing priorities right now, primarily the ongoing budget negotiations with lawmakers that have thus far lasted two months into the new fiscal year.

Rep. Rick Murphy, a Glendale Republican who serves on the House Health and Human Services Committee, said he doesn’t expect a final decision from Brewer until after the budget crisis is sorted out.

“Whether or not he implements what the governor’s interested in is going to be the determining factor there,” he said.

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