Indiana’s Controversial Health Chief : He’s Ready to Shake Things Up

Associated Press

Woodrow A. Myers Jr. is a 32-year-old physician and former football player who weighed in at a bulging 418 pounds when he became Indiana’s health commissioner last year.

Now a trim 216 pounds after a yearlong fast, Myers wants to shake up complacent Hoosier attitudes about health and make the State Board of Health “a lean, mean fighting machine.”

In just 16 months in office, Myers has:

- Made Hoosiers aware of the seriousness of their weight problem--roughly a quarter of the state’s population is obese by medical standards--and instituted ways to combat it.


- Introduced one of the first AIDS awareness and prevention programs in the nation.

- Reshaped the Board of Health’s bureaucracy.

- Labeled homicide as the No. 1 health problem in the black community and promised new programs for victim and violence intervention.

Concern for Black Needs

Myers is one of the first blacks to head a major state agency in Indiana. He said it was his qualifications, not quotas, that got him appointed. But he realizes that he has become a role model for children.

“When I was a kid growing up in Indianapolis, there were very few black people, male or female, in positions of leadership, in positions of authority, in positions of power,” he said.

Nevertheless, being black has made him sensitive to some issues. State figures for 1984 showed that the homicide rate among black males was 51.3 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 3.8 among white males. Among women, it was 14.3 for blacks, 1.4 for whites.

“The No. 1 cause of death if you’re a black male and between 15 and 44 is somebody shooting you,” he said.

Myers is considering several new programs to curb violent death and injury, including improved record-keeping on assault victims and a victims’ intervention program. A second conference on violence intervention is planned for next year.

Marketing Health

Myers has juggled his department’s organizational chart to place greater emphasis on marketing services. He said it won’t be long before Hoosiers see Grammy Award winners dancing their way through health videos or shouting advice from roadside billboards.

“I’m not selling Pepsi-Cola or Coke. I’m not selling sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. I’m selling good health. Our bottom line is measured in the health status of Hoosiers,” Myers said. “My job is to package my message in a way that’s going to get out.”

He has been a tough boss, telling employees in an internal memo: “If the Board of Health was ever considered an easy place to work, that will no longer be the case.

“I am driven. You too shall be driven.”

Figure of Controversy

Disgruntled employees mailed that memo to the Indianapolis Star and complained that Myers was cleaning house and pressuring longtime employees to leave. Myers also made enemies in Kokomo, where 14-year-old Ryan White was banned from Western Middle School when he came down with AIDS.

Daniel Carter, president of the Western School Board, called for Myers’ resignation after the commissioner urged the board to allow Ryan back to class. Carter said Myers had handled the matter unprofessionally and owed the people of Kokomo an apology.

“I will defend his right to call for my resignation,” Myers countered, “but I will not resign. I have nothing to resign for.”

Gays are up in arms over Myers’ proposal to close bathhouses and bookstores.

“He’s mixing politics with health issues,” said Stan Berg, owner of an Indianapolis gay health club. Berg’s news magazine, The Works, recently suggested that Myers, a Republican, was maneuvering for a future run for governor.

“If I understand an issue,” said Myers, “I’ll take a stand. I want to stimulate debate. I want people to say, ‘Myers, you’re crazy.’ ”

Impressive Credentials

Born and reared in Indianapolis, Myers has compiled an impressive list of credits in his 32 years: Harvard Medical School, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California at San Franciso, quality assurance chairman at San Francisco General Hospital, physician health adviser to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

He tackled the problem of obesity personally. Despite a football career that included two years at Stanford, he had been overweight since high school. So, under a doctor’s supervision, he abstained from solid food for a full year.

“I said, ‘Why not make an image out of yourself, Myers?’ ”

Awareness Week

At the end of the fast, he announced new strategies for fighting the state’s weight problem. A weight-loss awareness week is planned for the fall, and Myers wants to form a state diet club.

While other states may be plagued by drugs, Myers said, “We’ve got our own problem. We don’t shoot or snort. We eat.”

“A healthy state is an economically viable state,” Myers said, adding: “I think the state of health is going to get better.”

That reflects the thinking of Myers’ boss, Gov. Robert D. Orr, whose spokesman, R. Mark Lubbers, said improved health and better schools fit the master plan of improving the quality of life in Indiana. That, in turn, should attract new businesses and spur economic growth.

Commitment to Medicine

Myers is not afraid of making enemies. At San Francisco General, his quality assurance group identified three cases of substandard nursing care that resulted in death or permanent disability. The hospital leadership subsequently turned over.

“I was sure there were people who weren’t pleased, but I didn’t give a darn,” Myers said.

“The best thing about clinical medicine is that I don’t have to keep a job to pay the rent. I can do the right thing. The worst that could happen is I’d have to go out and practice medicine, which I love to do anyway.”

Practices Medicine

At Myers’ behest the Legislature gave him permission to practice medicine without compensation. He is now an assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University Medical Center, and in the fall he will be working in the center’s emergency room.

“I was getting antsy sitting here all day,” he said.

But, he said, “I always knew being a practitioner of medicine, although wonderful, was not enough. I’ve got management in my bones. What makes me happy is being in a position to make things happen. I’m an activist.

“Now I’ve got 5.5 million patients.”