Editorial: Ignoring the drug lab lessons

All of the top state health officials involved in the JP drug lab scandal have now resigned. But they were among the gentlest forced resignations in recent memory, handled by Gov. Patrick with such kid gloves that you would think these officials were victims of the crisis rather than its enablers. We fear this reflects a chummy, backslapping public health care world where politics are more important than practice, and that it sets the public up for another careless disaster.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. JudyAnn Bigby and former Health Commissioner John Auerbach, both JP residents, contributed a lot to public health on such issues as racial disparity and implementing the new insurance requirements. But their mismanagement of the State Lab shows a gross incompetence at a basic part of their jobs. (Ditto for the Framingham compounding lab disaster.)

The drug lab where chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly altered police evidence was not accredited. Arguably, the drug lab should have been run by police, not the Department of Public Health, but there is no sign Bigby or Auerbach ever stumped for that. When they became aware of Dookhan’s apparent wrongdoing, they basically did nothing for more than half a year until the State Police swooped in. Bigby’s office also resisted conducting an overall review of the State Lab.

Yet Patrick twisted himself into a pretzel pretending that Bigby was not forced out. And Auerbach’s resignation letter doubled as a celebratory note that he was defying political gravity by falling upward into a choice professorship at Northeastern. Exactly a month later, he shamelessly accepted a lifetime achievement award in person from a health advocacy nonprofit.

These are public health officials whose failures created major public health disasters. As a direct result, many people are dead, many violent, drug-pushing criminals are back on the street, and innocent people may be in prison, all at multi-million-dollar costs to the state. When punishment consists of a better job and some trophies, we can guarantee history will repeat itself.

It is good to see that Patrick has appointed a new Health and Human Services secretary with experience in hands-on medical center operations and military discipline. But we are still a long way from believing that the State Lab that handles dangerous substances in our back yard is safe and secure.

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