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Mass. Public Health Chief Stepping Down In December

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With the state on alert for any sign of a deadly virus within its borders, Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett told staff Tuesday she will depart her post in mid-December, taking a job battling substance abuse on Cape Cod.

Bartlett will head up a new substance abuse prevention and treatment program at Cape Cod Healthcare, she told staff in a Tuesday memo. Bartlett was selected as acting DPH commissioner in May 2013, and was named commissioner in June 2013.

Medical marijuana advocates have sharply criticized the department's efforts to implement a November 2012 voter law that legalized the drug for medical use with authorization from a doctor.

"Rates of smoking, childhood obesity and serious diseases are decreasing significantly thanks to the work of our entire public health team and our partners across the state," said Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz in a memo to colleagues Tuesday afternoon, which noted the state's 80.7-year life expectancy is an all-time high. "On a personal level, having Cheryl as our DPH Commissioner has put a real partner and advocate for the public's health in the role and I am both saddened to see Cheryl go, but happy to have been able to work with her at the helm of the Department."

Bartlett's departure means the next governor could take office in January with an acting commissioner in charge. The department has had three chiefs in the past two years. John Auerbach stepped aside in November 2012 after a scandal over how evidence was handled at a state crime lab that had been operated by DPH. Before his departure, the public began to learn about how lax standards at the New England Compounding Center created spoiled steroids that wound up killing 64 people. Auerbach was replaced by Lauren Smith, the acting commissioner who stayed on until Bartlett took the reins.

Drug abuse has been of mounting concern within state government, and last March Gov. Deval Patrick used emergency powers to ban the new painkiller Zohydro, a move that was overturned by a federal judge. Bartlett used her own emergency powers to require physicians to participate in the Prescription Monitoring Program before prescribing Zohydro.

A more recent threat, Ebola has killed thousands in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and caused local hospitals to be on alert for anyone with fever symptoms that traveled to those countries. Bartlett was at a press conference about Ebola Tuesday morning, where she declined to comment on whether she was going to announce her resignation.

Listing Patrick administration accomplishments in a memo to staff, Bartlett said the administration had "reinvented" data collection, created a veterans' liaison, and created an office of local and regional health.

"Times of transition are never easy - but they can provide an opportunity to pause, look back at what we've accomplished together, and rededicate ourselves to the work still ahead," wrote Bartlett, who raised the possibility of "Ebola cases arriving in Massachusetts" in her memo.

Bartlett was previously deputy commissioner, and director of the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention, where she worked on the Mass in Motion anti-childhood obesity program. Bartlett is a former member of the Nantucket Board of Selectmen.

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