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David Patton, who as interim director steered the Utah Department of Health through the legislative session, will now take the post permanently.

His appointment, announced Thursday by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, marks a departure from past agency heads, who came from the medical profession. But supporters say Patton brings a nonpartisan problem-solving focus at a time of great upheaval for the nation's health care system.

"On top of its day-to-day duties of protecting the health and well-being of our citizens, the health department faces significant challenges in managing Medicaid growth and implementing health reform efforts," Herbert said in a statement. "Patton's strong background in public policy and his keen leadership abilities make him the right person to successfully lead the department into the future."

Patton first joined the health department in January 2009 as chief operating officer, as part of a legislatively-directed plan to streamline its operations. Three months ago, he replaced David Sundwall, who resigned to teach at the University of Utah and pursue other interests.

Patton is braced for challenges — most of them budgetary — but said he has no "dramatic changes" in store.

Utah, which has long boasted being one of the healthiest states, slipped in national rankings last year, "and that's just not acceptable," he said.

The $8 billion low-income health insurance program Medicaid is eating a larger share of the state's budget and will expand dramatically under federal health reform. Patton said he wants to "get ahead" of state plans to change the way Medicaid pays doctors and to eliminate fraud, waste and abuse.

He sees federal health reform as an opportunity to find funding for these and other homegrown initiatives in disease and injury prevention. He'll also tap the pooled resources of local health agencies, advocacy groups and community health centers, he said.

Patton's appointment is subject to approval by the Utah Senate. The agency has come under scrutiny by the Legislature, which ordered three probes of Medicaid.

"History speaks for itself," said former House Speaker Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, who praised Patton for bringing a fresh perspective to old problems. "I'm very supportive of the governor's selection." —

About David Patton

Education — Degrees in economics and political science, a master of public administration degree from Brigham Young University, and a doctorate from the University of Utah.

Employment — Before joining the Utah Health Department, he served as:

Director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah.

Leader of former Gov. Jon Huntsman's second gubernatorial transition team.

Political science teacher from 1989-2002 at Boise State University.

Chief labor negotiator for two Salt Lake City mayors, Ted Wilson and Palmer DePaulis.

Once lobbied for the Utah Public Employee Association.