The search for a new chief to head the county's Department of Health Services is turning out to be even tougher than anticipated. And now, none other than health care entrepreneur Bernard Salick has cropped up as a candidate.

Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., the executive search firm hired by the Board of Supervisors, is finding fewer public health care administrators and others interested in the position than it had hoped.

Meanwhile, sources tell the Business Journal that Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has had informal discussions outside that process with Salick, a wealthy Beverly Hills doctor and businessman, though both are publicly denying it.

The recruitment process had been expected to be difficult for a host of reasons, but especially because the county faces the daunting task of serving 2.7 million uninsured residents as its faces federal funding cuts that will result in a $500 million department shortfall in four years.

Moreover, any new health services chief would be walking into an uncertain bureaucratic environment. The supervisors are considering the creation of a public health authority to oversee the department in an effort to insulate it from some of the politics that has made the job such a hot seat.

Even so, Carol Emmott, the Heidrick & Struggles partner leading the recruitment, acknowledged that the search has been harder than she had anticipated.

"I think it is one of the more challenging recruitments we have done in a while," said Emmott, who is based in San Francisco. "We thought there would be more people raising their hands thinking they could do it. I think there is a good recognition that any Dick and Harry can't do it."

Emmott added that the firm also has been "very forthright" about the challenge and complexity of the job, which she said has "scared off" some candidates.

"We are believers in truth in advertising," she said.

Despite a $242,000 annual salary, former director Mark Finucane left in June, saying that five years in the post was long enough. Nevertheless, Emmott said she expects to have several strong candidates to present to the board sometime in September.

The recruitment period formally ends Aug. 21. Fred Leaf, a department administrator who worked under Finucane, is filling the job on a temporary basis.

The position can be filled at the board's discretion, meaning that supervisors could simply reject all the prospects and put forth their own individual candidates an idea Yaroslavsky appears to at least by toying with.

Sources said that the Westside supervisor first discussed the job with Salick in Tel Aviv in the spring while both were in Israel for that country's national elections. They later discussed the position again when they returned to the states, though it is unclear how serious either side is taking the discussions.

Yaroslavsky declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman Joel Bellman said the supervisor was not "recruiting" Salick and is "honoring" the search process being conducted by Heidrick & Struggles.

"We have a search firm in place," Bellman said.

Salick, 61, would not comment on the discussion, except to say that he has been working hard to find investors for his business. "My focus is on getting funding for my cancer company, and things are looking up," he said.

Salick, a kidney specialist who received his medical degree from the University of Southern California, built a chain of nationwide cancer centers that offered 24-hour, comprehensive care. Taking oncological care out of hospitals lowered costs, and Salick was able to make money on managed-care contracts.

He sold the chain to pharmaceutical giant Zeneca PLC in 1995 for $480 million in an effort to expand overseas. However, he was ousted as chief executive once the deal was completed in 1997.

Salick has been trying to build new centers ever since, but has been unable to garner the $300 million in funding he sought, a problem he has blamed on the now-receding Internet mania.

Private sector candidate

Yaroslavsky's interest in Salick may seem odd, but the businessman was considered an innovator in establishing his cancer centers. Moreover, the supervisors have talked publicly about possibly hiring a director from the private sector.

Along with Yaroslavsky, supervisors Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich are perceived as being the most open to hiring from the private sector. And Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has talked about breaking the job up into two positions, with one focusing on hospitals and finances. Supervisor Gloria Molina is seen as being the most skeptical.

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