Ron Arias  first health-related success in Long Beach was on behalf of the American Lung Association, which persuaded the city to fully ban smoking in
Ron Arias first health-related success in Long Beach was on behalf of the American Lung Association, which persuaded the city to fully ban smoking in restaurants. He later became a manager of the Public Health Bureau, then was appointed to run the Health and Human Services Department in 2000. His last day is Friday. (Brittany Murray/Staff Photographer)

LONG BEACH - Ron Arias, director of the city's Department of Health and Human Services, keeps tabs on the time these days.

That's partly due to the fact that he's set to leave his post Friday, following 22 years at the agency, but it's also because his multifarious duties require considerable attention, shifting from one task to another.

"The agency embraces the entire community," Arias said.

Known simply as the Health Department, the agency has five bureaus focused on 31 missions - ranging from homeless services and veterans affairs supportive housing, to preventive health and public health nursing, to vector control, which is the monitoring and control of disease-carrying animals and insects.

"We serve the most diverse large city in America," the director said. "We're still getting things done," Arias said, crediting City Hall's support.

"It's a reflection of great leadership in the city," he said.

Arias started his Health Department career in December 1990 as manager of the Public Health Bureau. He's been director of the Health Department since February 2000, when former City Manager Henry Taboada appointed him.

"Ron will be terribly missed," City Manager Pat West said in September when Arias announced his retirement. "His passion for the community and his commitment to the health profession is unmatched, and we have been lucky to have such a committed health professional as our director.


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Prior to taking on the job at the Health Department, Arias worked 11 years at the American Lung Association, lobbying cities to ban smoking in public places.

In the 1990s, most restaurants established no-smoking zones in 25 percent of their establishments, Arias said.

Long Beach businesses were strongly opposed to any bans, he added.

"They thought it would be bad for business," Arias said.

The effort to change the City Council's defense of the pro-smoking stance would take two years, the director said.

However, two key council members helped to get the full ban adopted - Evan Braude and Ray Grabinsky.

"Braude and Grabinsky were strong backers of the proposed ban," he said. "They were the right people to have on your side ... because they were very convincing."

Eventually, the council supported the ban because the members believed it was in the public's best interest, Arias said, adding that attitudes also changed.

"Even smokers didn't like eating in a smoke-filled room," he added.

The big challenge, these days, is keeping the Health Department viable during difficult budgetary times, Arias said, adding that 250 positions have been eliminated.

With 343 employees, the Health Department has a $119 million budget.

Those resources, he said, are 99 percent grant-driven from the federal, state and county governments, and from private foundations - including the Kaiser Foundation, Miller Foundation and the California Endowment Foundation.

Arias credits the staff for continued funding, since continued grant funding is based on performance.

With fewer staffers, the work has been more challenging, he said.

"It's made it more difficult, but we've been able to manage," he said. "We have navigated the department through a very difficult period."

The focus of the Health Department's mission is on prevention, the director said.

With many health issues being prevented, the Health Department maintains a low profile, Arias said.

"You don't see a lot of problems that could pop up," he said, adding that it's like a "stealth" operation. "You know we're here, but you really don't see us."

Two years ago, for example, whooping cough was generally a mounting problem across the country, but not in Long Beach, Arias noted. Schoolchildren had been given pertussis boosters, he said.

"Our numbers were amazingly low," Arias said.

Over the past year, the Health Department has administered 14,780 vaccinations for smallpox, measles and the flu, he said. Workers have also conducted 18,740 inspections of restaurants and markets, he said.

However, due to grant-funding cuts, the department's prenatal services have ceased, but Arias said the department might soon take another crack at re-establishing the trimmed program. 

As director, Arias also initiated chronic disease prevention programs, including the childhood obesity prevention programs, while also connecting the department with the community through targeted outreach and educational programs.

Arias predicted obesity will continue to draw the Health Department's attention for the next two decades.

Educational programs, he said, have had positive impacts. The Health Department, for example, screened a film, titled "Rethink Your Drink," on the impacts of soda on a person's health, namely that a 16-ounce drink equals 20 packets of sugar.

"When we show that, they (students) are amazed," Arias said, adding that part of the obesity problem is the loss of physical education programs at schools and the reduction of Parks and Recreation programs.

"All of these programs have to come back - to stem the obesity epidemic," Arias said.

During his tenure, the department has established the Miller Family Health Education Center, the Long Beach Community Health Councils and the Community Health Research studies.

Arias has received several significant recognitions, including Cal State Long Beach's Distinguished Alumnus. He graduated from CSULB in 1971 with a degree in physical education and earned a master's in public administration from USC.

He also received the Ruth and Milton Roemer Award for public health leadership from the Southern California Public Health Association and the Crockett Memorial Award from the American Lung Association.

The director has been a resident of Long Beach for more than 40 years, with his wife, Phyllis, who is a professor at Long Beach City College.

joe.segura@presstelegram.com

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