Health

Advocate for the poor and homeless leaving LA's health agency

Dr. Mitch Katz is the Director of Health Services for Los Angeles County.
Dr. Mitch Katz is the Director of Health Services for Los Angeles County.
Courtesy Hank Salazar

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L.A.'s health chief – a longtime advocate for the county's poor and homeless – is leaving for New York at the end of the year.

Dr. Mitch Katz will return to his home town at the end of the year to be close to his ailing parents and to run New York City's Health and Hospitals Corporation, the public health provider in the city. 

Katz, who was hired from San Francisco to run L.A. County's Department of Health Services in 2011 has see his influence and role expand over the past few years to directing a consolidated county health agency and providing care to L.A. County's jail inmates.

Katz, who told the New York Times his sister had once been homeless, brought the resources of his department to bear on L.A.'s homeless crisis.

He took existing funds in the Department of Health Services and spent them on permanent housing for thousands of homeless clients—with the bet that their health would improve once they left the streets, and eventually cost the system less money.

At a KPCC In-Person event at the Milken Institute last year, Katz told the audience that if any person with a home had a bad case of pneumonia, they might spend a few days in the hospital and then be discharged to recover at home.

"And I'd hope that there would be a loving person who'd give you soup and keep you warm," he said. "Well what if you have someone with the same illness and they're homeless? I can't send them out, who's going to make sure they don't die? They stay in the hospital."

And that costs about $2,000 a day, he added.

"Whatever people's problems are, whether they're mentally ill or have substance abuse treatment issues, nothing is helped by being under the freeway," he said. 

Katz's Housing for Health program, as of June, had placed nearly 3,500 people into permanent housing since its start in 2014. It has since expanded to the county jails, through the Office of Diversion and Reentry. 

Members of L.A. County's Board of Supervisors are scheduled to start discussing who will replace Katz on Tuesday, behind closed doors. But members of the board indicated they want someone who will continue his legacy.

"Dr. Katz has been an exceptional Health Director and valued asset to the County of Los Angeles," said Supervisor Janice Hahn in an email. "He will be a hard act to follow.  I will be looking for a new health director who can build on the work Dr. Katz has started—fortifying our safety net and ensuring our most vulnerable residents can access the vital care they need."

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said that Katz was instrumental in creating what she called one of the best health care delivery systems in the United States. "He is a true visionary that has brought meaningful reform to our County Health Agency – simultaneously expanding access, improving quality and maximizing efficiency," she said in an email. "While I am sad to see him go, I am confident that he will be successful in New York – they are fortunate to have him.   The search for his successor begins today and they certainly will have big sneakers to fill.” 

People who work with Katz say the quirky doctor, who rides his bike most places, keeps a cot for napping in his office, and has continued to see patients even as his administrative role expanded, will be hard to replace.

"I think we'll all miss him as a professional and a colleague," said Chris Ko, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "He's someone who brought heart, passion, intellect, and humanity to the work."