A new era began Thursday when Dr. Matthew Sutter was named Allen County health commissioner by the Board of Health.
Sutter, 52, replaces Dr. Deborah McMahan, a popular physician who took over the post 20 years ago and has been hailed for her work to combat public health problems including smoking, obesity, opioid abuse and local planning and response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Board of Health met Thursday at Grand Wayne Center to discuss Sutter's appointment.
McMahan, 64, will retire June 5, and her successor – who will make $50,000 in a part-time role – will help guide residents and the county Department of Health through a complicated, unique and often confusing period marked by the COVID-19 crisis. The disease caused by the coronavirus has killed at least 66 Allen County residents, state data show.
“I want to thank the board for appointing me to such an important role during this global crisis,” Sutter said in a statement issued by the health department after the meeting. “I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to work with such an effective team. Dr. McMahan has done an amazing job building up public health, and I hope to continue that legacy in our community.”
In an exclusive interview with The Journal Gazette this week, Sutter said the pandemic piqued his interest in the health department's top job – a position only two applicants sought.
Sutter said he is drawn to crises and emergencies. He was among crews who arrived in Miami to help when Hurricane Andrew ravaged the area in 1992, he said, and later worked in the emergency department at Lutheran Hospital when doctors and patients were battling H1N1, also known as swine flu.
“It's kind of hard-wired into me,” said Sutter, who was born in Florida but moved to Fort Wayne as a child.
A former paramedic and firefighter who earned an MBA last year and was Lutheran Hospital's chief medical officer from 2016 to 2017, he now is the director of medical affairs at Adams County Memorial Hospital in Decatur. He will keep that job as he transitions into the health commissioner role.
He can do that because Allen County officials recently approved changing the post from a full-time position with an annual salary of about $164,000 to one that is part time.
Since McMahan was appointed in 2000 to replace Dr. Ronald J. Everson, the job has been equal parts administrator, public health educator and clinician. Sutter now will serve as medical director for the health department and be responsible for duties including health education and strategic planning.
On the clinical side, a part-time physician will be hired at a wage range of $65 to $150 per hour to work with department medical staff to see patients one or two days per week.
Mindy Waldron, department administrator, has said it was difficult to lure someone to the position to do both in part because the full-time salary was much lower than a doctor might earn elsewhere. She acknowledges the split roles might not be workable forever and said Tuesday things could shift in the future.
It's not clear when, though, and interviews for the part-time physician job have not been held. Sutter wants to learn about the clinical side of public health and could decide in the coming months what tasks he will handle and which will be given to the other doctor.
“So, instead of hiring a second part-time physician now, Dr. Sutter will do both positions himself for the short-term to get a feel for what they are, and therefore will be better suited to advise overall as the medical director and help direct the hiring process for the second physician in a few months,” Waldron said in an email.
Sutter and the other candidate – who has not been identified – each were interviewed over the past two weeks for the four-year appointment.
Each of the seven health board members voted to appoint Sutter and said he is an ideal fit for the position.
Patti Hays, a nurse, said he is willing to ask questions and learn.
“What impresses me most is – I've seen him as a caregiver, his compassion,” she said. “I like that he asks nurses their opinion.”
Dr. William Pond, board president, called Sutter “highly and uniquely qualified.”
“We're very pleased to have attracted someone of his qualifications,” he said.
In the interview Tuesday, Sutter described COVID-19 as the most critical health issue now facing the county, which as of Thursday has seen more than 1,400 cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus. He committed to a 90-day “Commissioner University” in which he will learn about all aspects of the health department, public health and how to tackle problems including COVID-19 and ongoing issues among residents such as addiction and other illnesses.
While specifics about how he'll handle those problems are not set in stone, Sutter lauded McMahan for work to educate the public about healthier practices and lifestyles. Sutter also said he would push for more funding for public health and health departments – a concern McMahan often has raised.
Waldron said McMahan, who did not attend the meeting but drew praise from her colleagues, was not part of the process in which Sutter was hired.
The United Health Foundation often ranks Indiana near the bottom for total public health funding among states.
“You look at it as an investment,” Sutter said. “To me, it's a no-brainer to fund public health. But I might be a bit biased.”
He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics/computer science from IPFW in 1991 and his medical degree from Indiana University six years later. At Adams County Memorial Hospital, Sutter coordinates staff as well as medical staff procedures and process.
He “participated in management and strategy for a 396-bed tertiary care hospital” at Lutheran, according to a resume he provided to The Journal Gazette and said he plans to work collaboratively with hospitals, nonprofits and government agencies to improve public health.
“I think there are many benefits to getting people together,” he said.