Health Commission faces grilling at the Capitol
ST. PAUL -- State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach apologized repeatedly during a joint legislative hearing held Tuesday at the Capitol to address why her department withheld for a year information on the mesothelioma deaths of 35 Iron Range...
ST. PAUL -- State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach apologized repeatedly during a joint legislative hearing held Tuesday at the Capitol to address why her department withheld for a year information on the mesothelioma deaths of 35 Iron Range miners.
"It was a mistake I truly regret," she said during a hearing that lasted about 4½ hours. "This information is critical. Questions about mesothelioma have frustrated people on the Iron Range for many years."
Those apologies didn't satisfy many of the DFL members of the House and Senate, who again called for Mandernach's resignation, saying the public's trust in the department has been tarnished, while others said that her department covered up the information and that she was taking the fall for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Despite the controversy, Mandernach said after the hearing that she would not resign.
Mandernach said during the hearing that she withheld the information to develop a plan of action to study the cause of the deaths and to apply for federal money, which she believed would be jeopardized by releasing the information.
She said the Health Department also has been criticized in the past for releasing information too soon. Still, she said the decision was hers alone and asked that the reputation of the department not be affected because of it.
"This is an anomaly resulting from my actions," she said.
But some legislators asked why withholding the information would have any effect on getting federal money. Others asked why Mandernach would go through two legislative sessions without asking for money for a study.
"Your agency was sitting in front of a House committee," said Rep. Tony Sertich of Chisholm. "What better time to ask for ... money from the state?"
"You're right," Mandernach replied. "It was not a good decision."
Nine DFL lawmakers, including eight from the Iron Range, called last week for Mandernach's resignation after the Star Tribune reported on the suppressed research about the additional mesothelioma cases, which nearly doubled the number of known cases when the information was finally released in March.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by asbestos, generally takes about 40 to 50 years to show up and is always fatal. Last week, the Health Department reported that an additional six cases have been identified among 72,000 people who worked in the mines between the 1930s and 1982, bringing to 58 the number of miners who have died from the disease.
Pawlenty has said that the issue was not handled well, but stood by Mandernach and said he would not ask her to resign. No one from Pawlenty's staff was present when the meeting began, drawing the ire of Sen. John Marty of Roseville, chairman of the Health, Housing and Family Security committee.
"They apparently don't know that there's a meeting down here and their health commissioner is in hot water," he said.
Later, a member of Pawlenty's staff came to the meeting and took questions from the legislators.
The hearing unfolded along divided party lines, with DFL legislators assailing the commissioner and some Republican legislators defending her.
"I'm not persuaded that there's a plot here," said Sen. David Hann, a Republican from Eden Prairie. "I think the public should take away from the hearing that there's no plot to withhold information from the public."
Hann accused the Democrats of playing a political game at Mandernach's expense, but Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia said he was concerned about why the Health Department sat on the information.
"This is a major, major screw-up," he said. "There seems to be evidence that someone is trying to hide the screw-up. That becomes a cover-up."
The public grilling isn't over for Mandernach, who has another legislative hearing scheduled for Thursday in Mountain Iron. That meeting, which is open to the public, begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Mountain Iron Community Center on U.S. Highway 169.