DPH's Auerbach Resigns Amid Lab Scandal

Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach has resigned, according to the Patrick administration. (Photo: Office of Gov. Deval Patrick)
Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach has resigned, according to the Patrick administration. (Photo: Office of Gov. Deval Patrick)

This just in from State House News Service:

Amid a crime lab scandal, Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach has resigned, according to a Patrick administration official. Auerbach offered his resignation over the weekend and Gov. Deval Patrick accepted it on Monday. Auerbach is expected to remain on for a transitional period, according to the administration official.

Last Thursday, state officials announced that the bureau chief of the now shuttered state Jamaica Plain crime lab at the center of a controversy over the alleged mishandling of drug samples had resigned, a previously suspended lab director had been fired and the Patrick administration had begun “discharge proceedings” against a third crime lab supervisor.

Patrick administration officials are juggliing a crisis centering on more than 60,000 drug samples that may have been tainted by a rogue chemist leading to the shakeup. Lab Bureau Chief Dr. Linda Han resigned on Wednesday.

The director of the analytical chemistry division at the Department Public Health, Dr. Julie Nassif, was fired her role in a massive tampering case that Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby attributed in part to lax oversight and an “unacceptable delay” in notifying superiors.

Suspicion of the testing being conducted by chemist Annie Dookhan first surfaced in June 2011 when an evidence officer noticed that tests had been performed on 90 drug samples that had never been signed out of the evidence room, breaking the chain of custody. Nassif was notified of the breach in protocol, but she did not immediately inform superiors at the Department of Public Health, according to a chronology provided by state officials.

Days later, upon further inspection of the log book, officials found that Dookhan had added her initials and those of others to the sign-out sheet after the fact. Though she was immediately removed from full-time testing duties, Bigby said her office has since learned Dookhan continued to perform periodic testing and testify in court.

Here's Auerbach's statement, from the DPH website:

“It is with deep regret and with a sense of responsibility to uphold the high ideals Governor Patrick demands that I announce today my resignation as Commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

“It is clear that there was insufficient quality monitoring, reporting and investigating on the part of supervisors and managers surrounding the former Department of Public Health drug lab in Jamaica Plain – and ultimately, as Commissioner, the buck stops with me.

“What happened at the drug lab was unacceptable and the impact on people across the state may be devastating, particularly for some within the criminal justice system. We owe it to ourselves and the public to make sure we understand exactly how and why this happened. I will continue to work with investigators to make sure we find answers and accept responsibility.

“The behaviors of the drug lab chemist and the failure to properly manage and supervise her work are unacceptable. But I know they do not represent the work of the rest of the staff at the Department of Public Health. My colleagues take seriously their responsibility to help make Massachusetts a better place and are as upset with what happened as everyone else. It has been my great honor and privilege to work together with them.

“In the past six years, the work of the Department of Public Health has had a significant, positive impact on public health and I am proud of these accomplishments, including: launching Mass in Motion, a major initiative to combat obesity and promote wellness; strengthening efforts to prevent chronic and infectious diseases; heightening efforts to combat substance abuse; successfully implementing sports head injury regulations and strengthening the Department’s focus on perinatal health outcomes. These efforts have lead to the lowest rates of HIV infections and deaths in decades, a decrease in the rise of opiate overdose deaths and holding the line on childhood obesity.

“I thank Secretary Bigby for her leadership and principled commitment to promoting the health of residents of the Commonwealth. I offer my deep appreciation to the Governor for the opportunity to have held this position and I look forward to continuing my work to promote public health in my future endeavors.”

The Boston Globe quotes Gov. Patrick's statement:

The failures at the Department of Public Health drug lab are serious and the actions and inactions of lab management compounded the problem. The Commissioner recognizes that, as the head of DPH, he shares accountability for the breakdown in oversight.

While the recent developments are deeply troubling, they are not representative of the whole of John’s work or of the rest of the Department. For the past six years, John has run a department that improved public health and wellness. His and his colleagues’ commitment to the common good and the people of Massachusetts is unquestioned. It saddens me to accept his resignation today and I wish John well in the future.”

And the the Massachusetts Public Health Association released this statement:

"The revelations about the state drug lab are troubling, but are not reflective of the impact and accomplishments of Commissioner Auerbach. Over the last 6 years, John has been one of the nation's most effective and innovative public health leaders," said Maddie Ribble, MPHA's Director of Policy and Communications. "In the areas of chronic disease prevention, support for local public health officers, communicable disease control, and emergency preparedness, to name only a few, the Commonwealth is stronger and healthier for John's leadership."

This program aired on September 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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