Public health chief nomination approved, with reservations

Joseph Acierno

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers reversed course Wednesday on the confirmation of Dr. Joseph Acierno for the post of state public health director.

Lawmakers voted 34-6 to approve his nomination, after taking the rare step Tuesday of voting against a governor's nominee.

The Tuesday vote was 22-15 with nine senators abstaining. Approval requires 25 votes.

State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who abstained in the original vote, filed the motion to reconsider. He said he continues to have reservations about Acierno but is willing to give him and the new administration the benefit of the doubt.

Mello said he feels confident that Gov. Pete Ricketts and Courtney Phillips, the new CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services, will remove Acierno if he remains a roadblock to reforms.

"We've seen a breath of fresh air with regards to the new administration," he said.

But Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha urged his colleagues not to confirm Acierno. He said the Legislature should not saddle Phillips with a problem to start out with.

He also expressed doubt that she would be able to fire Acierno if the governor wanted to keep him.

In a statement, Acierno said he appreciated the reconsideration vote and would continue to work on moving public health forward.

"As I said at my confirmation hearing, it's been an honor and privilege to serve Nebraskans, and I'm excited about the work we're doing in public health to help people live better lives," he said.

Ricketts' spokesman, Taylor Gage, said on Tuesday that the governor stands by Acierno, who has been chief medical officer and has directed the public health division of HHS since 2013.

Acierno was named to the job originally by Gov. Dave Heine man. Ricketts opted to keep him on. Acierno makes $152,645 annually.

On Tuesday, lawmakers said Acierno has been an obstacle to necessary reforms and has responded defensively when presented with problems.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, the Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, supported the reconsideration.

She said she expects Phillips, who was brought in to lead HHS last month, will set high expectations for her directors and will hold them to those expectations.

But Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha remained in opposition, saying he had not seen a change in Acierno with the new administration. He said Acierno has delayed progress and not been proactive in seeking to protect the health and well-being of Nebraskans.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue did not support the appointment on Tuesday but changed her vote Wednesday, saying she has confidence in Campbell's ability to work with the administration on problems.

Acierno holds medical and law degrees. He worked as an emergency room physician at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha in the early 1990s. He joined HHS as an attorney in the regulation and licensing section, then became deputy chief medical officer in 2007.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

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