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‘The system was broken:’ After 1 year at the helm, Milwaukee health commissioner talks progress, challenges

Data pix.

Jeanette Kowalik

MILWAUKEE -- Rebuilding from the ground up, Jeanette Kowalik on Tuesday, Aug. 13 reflected on her progress and the challenges that lie ahead nearly a year after she was named health commissioner at the Milwaukee Health Department.

When Kowalik took office, she set out to do three major things:

  1. Improve performance and accountability
  2. Develop the public health workforce
  3. Restore the public's confidence in the department

Kowalik said Tuesday while she's made progress in the three fields, a lot more work is ahead, with Milwaukee's struggle to improve public health well known.

"Because the system was broken, because we've had management challenges, it's taking some time getting everything up," said Kowalik.

Jeanette Kowalik

Nearly one year in Kowalik said her role as health commissioner hasn't gone entirely as expected.

"We need resources," said Kowalik. "We need money. We need people. We need time."

In the wake of the big lead exposure scandal, Kowalik said a lot of people have been trying to figure out what went wrong.

"We have had, or are currently under, five audits or investigations," said Kowalik.

Two of them remained open as of Tuesday.

"Everyone is invested in understanding what happened, what broke down, so that we can learn from it, and move forward," said Kowalik. "However, the volume of everything that's happening is impacting our ability to move forward."


Kowalik said there have been struggles getting caught up and attracting new talent to fill vacancies.

Jeanette Kowalik

"We're having issues with recruitment, and retaining staff," said Kowalik.

That being said, Kowalik highlighted the department's work addressing the backlog of lead exposure victims, and ongoing efforts to address public health needs -- things like free STI clinics.

The most important part -- rebuilding trust -- will take time.

"I believe we need to be patient with the community, because the trust has been broken in many aspects, and relationships only move at the speed of trust," Kowalik said.

Kowalik said she knew the first year would be bumpy, and said she was hopeful with another year of work, she and her staff would be able to build upon the lessons they've learned, and really start making significant improvements.

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