Healthy Times

LFCHD Employee Newsletter

Dr. Rice Leach, Lexington’s commissioner of health, dies at age 75

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We say goodbye today to Commissioner of Health Dr. Rice Leach. A special thank you to those who are staying in Lexington today to make sure the health department continues to provide Public Health services to the community.

Below is the release that was shared last week with the media and community partners. Also, here are some links to media coverage of Dr. Leach’s death:
Lexington Herald-Leader news article
Lexington Herald-Leader editorial
Frankfort State-Journal obituary

Dr. Rice Cowan Leach, a life-long Public Health servant and Lexington’s Commissioner of Health, died Friday, April 1, following a battle with cancer. He was 75.

“I joined the Board of Health because of Rice Leach’s passion for his job and his community,” said Paula Anderson, chair of the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health. “Rice’s energy and commitment to Public Health were inspirational to me, my fellow board members, the staff at the health department and so many others in our community who answered his call to collaborate in making our community safer and healthier.”

Leach served as Commissioner of Health since March 2011. He had previously worked with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department from 2005 until 2010 as the executive director of what was then the department’s Primary Care Center.

Under Leach’s watch, the health department received national accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board, making it one of the first in the country to receive the honor. The department also launched the city’s first needle-exchange program in 2015, designed to curb the potential spread of HIV and Hepatitis C among injecting drug users.
“Rice’s integrity, unparalleled expertise and compassion informed everything he did,” said Board of Health member Scott White, a Lexington attorney who first worked with Dr. Leach in 1988 in state government. “It’s not too much to say Rice’s leadership saved Lexington’s health department when he came out of semi-retirement to take on this job in 2011.”

White spent two years as chair of the Board of Health, a time he said he grew close to Dr. Leach, paying particular notice of his leadership skills. “Working almost daily with him to support his management of the department through budget crises, resolving the HealthFirst issue on great terms, obtaining national accreditation for the department, integrating safe food trucks into Lexington’s emerging dining scene, developing a partnership with Lexington Community Radio and passage of cutting-edge initiatives like the controversial needle-exchange program are all testament to his skill and excellence as a leader,” White said.

Dr. John Riley, a Lexington pediatrician and longtime Board of Health member, recalled Dr. Leach’s ability to talk with anyone at any level. “He made everyone feel they were listened to and appreciated,” Riley said. “With this, he maintained and advanced the health of the community.”

Leach was born April 10, 1940, in Lexington. He graduated from Amherst College and received his medical degree from the University of Kentucky in 1966. He did his rotating internship as an officer of the United States Public Health Service and remained on active duty until 1993. During his Public Health Service career he was medical director of hospital staffs, hospital commander, community health physician, director of a multi-state program in the Indian Health Service and served as chief of staff to the Surgeon General.

He obtained his Master of Health Services Administration degree from the Harvard School of Public Health, was certified by American Board of Preventive Medicine and was a fellow of the American College of Physician Executives.

Leach served as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Public Health from 1992 until 2004. He was professor and preventive residency program associate director at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health until he became Lexington’s Commissioner of Health in 2011.

“Dr. Leach had a long, colorful professional history, and he loved sharing stories from all the different jobs he’s held,” said Kevin Hall, LFCHD spokesman. “He could talk to anyone at anytime. Obviously, we will miss his leadership at the department, but more than that, we’re going to miss his overall presence – the daily talks, the handshakes and hugs. He brought a lot of love to this department, and everyone loved him back.”
Leach had announced plans to retire in 2016, allowing the Board of Health to start the search for his replacement. The nationwide search is ongoing. In the interim, the board has named Jack Cornett, the health department’s chief financial officer, as acting commissioner.

“When Rice’s health started to decline last fall, he told me to ‘hurry up and find a new commissioner,’ so the Board of Health is well into the search for the next Commissioner of Health,” Anderson said. “I cannot say ‘replacement’ because I don’t think it’s possible to replace Rice’s deep knowledge and expertise when combined with his wonderful personality and gift for storytelling. But we will do our best to make sure we find someone who can build on his legacy of excellence.”

“The shoes he leaves are large,” White said. “The loss our community and his colleagues suffer is assuaged only by his love for the work and the legacy he leaves. That is his memorial. He lived a life we can all envy.”

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