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Former head of Allegheny County's health department clears hurdle for Pa. Senate confirmation

Debra Bogen takes questions from the press.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen takes questions from the press at a March 16, 2022 press conference about COVID-19.

The physician that led Allegheny County's health department through the COVID-19 pandemic is one step closer to becoming Pennsylvania's next Secretary of Health.

The state senate's Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to move Debra Bogen's nomination forward at the end of a Tuesday morning hearing. She's been acting secretary since Gov. Josh Shapiro took office on Jan. 17 but needs senate confirmation before officially assuming the role.

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Bogen began with the county health department at the beginning of the pandemic; before entering public service, she was vice chair of education for the Department of Pediatrics at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

While navigating this unprecedented crisis, Bogen told senators she learned to collaborate with various stakeholders, including different government agencies, health care providers and school districts. She noted that it was essential to communicate clearly with the public during the public health crisis.

"There were a lot of things we didn't know across the pandemic, and I really tried to remain honest and tell people, if we don't know something, we don't know it," said Bogen. "That honesty and transparency, I think, are fundamental to who I am and what I bring to this job."

Bogen's topic priorities include improving health care access, particularly for rural communities and maternity care. Committee chair Michelle Brooks, who represents Mercer Crawford and part of Lawrence counties, asked how Bogen planned to support under-resourced hospitals, some of which have closed.

Bogen agreed that hospital closures put rural residents at risk but explained that the health department lacks the authority to stop a hospital from closing. She noted that outpatient emergency rooms, micro hospitals and telehealth services are some strategies that can help communities maintain access and that she's open to other solutions.

Minority chair Art Haywood, a Democrat from Philadelphia, inquired how the health department's office of health equity can address access issues. Bogen said that everyone within the health department needs to address equity issues and that the health equity office is: "a resource for our department to ensure that everyone is walking that walk together."

Bogen's confirmation is being considered next by the Committee on Rules and Executive Nominations.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.