PETER L. BEILENSON talks fast. Whether the subject is drug treatment, teenage pregnancy, lead-poisoned kids, the rate of HIV or juvenile violence, the city health commissioner articulates the crux of the matter with conviction and ease - and, when necessary, in rapid-fire sound bites. The good doctor is that good, on the substance and sense of urgency that so many of these complex problems demand. He has been an artful, forceful advocate for the citizens of Baltimore for more than a decade, under two mayors. Now he's moving on, to seek elective office, and to say that his resignation is a loss would be an understatement.
Dr. Beilenson has not been afraid to stake out controversial positions that he believes are in the best interest of the public's health, including promoting needle exchanges to help reduce the spread of AIDS and introducing Norplant contraceptives to keep teen pregnancy down. When city schools failed to act on repeated warnings to fix lead-tainted school water fountains, Dr. Beilenson began fining the offenders.
He has pushed for additional drug treatment slots, established a program for youths at risk of being killed or killing, and trained drug addicts to administer Narcan to reverse drug overdoses. If the Health Department's food service inspections didn't always meet the grade or its animal control staff didn't license enough pets, it may have been because the health commissioner was concerned about less routine aspects of the job. That may well become Dr. Beilenson's lasting accomplishment - redirecting the traditional focus of the Health Department to include, for example, the well-being of moms and children, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the impact of violence on the city's public health.
Dr. Beilenson can readily tick off his accomplishments, but he's not afraid to talk about his mistakes. That kind of maturity and openness should be a hallmark of public service - and it's what the people of Baltimore should rightfully expect from the next health commissioner.