Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Aug. 22, 2007: Health commissioner resigns after suppressing study

  • Article by: Joy Powell and Patricia Lopez
  • Star Tribune
  • August 22, 2007 - 12:14 AM

After months of blistering criticism of her performance, Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach will leave her post effective Oct. 2.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had long stood by Mandernach, announced her departure late Tuesday.

"I sincerely appreciate Dianne's willingness to set aside her private career for a time to serve Minnesota," he said. "We wish her and her family well as she moves on from state government."

This summer, Mandernach was criticized over her suppression of a state study about 35 cancer deaths related to taconite mining on Minnesota's Iron Range.

In 2004, her credibility suffered when a website posting by the department suggested that abortion might have a role in breast cancer. Critics denounced those claims as junk science, and the wording was removed from the website.

Mandernach released a statement Tuesday evening. "This decision was very difficult for me because I firmly believe in the department's mission to protect, maintain and improve the health of all Minnesotans," she said. "I will miss the opportunity ... to lead one of the best health departments in the nation."

In June, the Star Tribune revealed that Mandernach delayed releasing government research on cancer in miners.

The Health Department had discovered in early 2006 that the 35 miners were stricken with mesothelioma between 1997 and 2005. That was twice as many miner cancer deaths than were reported in the previous nine years.

In an apology, Mandernach said she delayed release of that discovery for a year to develop plans for further studies. The new studies and the cancer deaths report were released in March 2007.

DFL lawmakers called for her ouster, and a probe began into the possible link between taconite and the cancer.

"It's about time," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, of her resignation. He was among those who called for the commissioner to step down last summer.

"But why now?" he said. "Is this timing indicative of something, trying to take the focus off of the bridge, or other things that are collapsing in the state of Minnesota?"

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was among lawmakers who said that they suspected that the yearlong suppression of research about the 35 cancer deaths was a political move in an election season -- a claim Mandernach denied.

"I've been around the Capitol 21 years, and that decision was not made by her. That kind of decision gets made in the governor's office," Rukavina said. "She's taking the hit for the governor."

Robin Eller's father, Herbert McCall, was a train conductor on the Iron Range for 40 years, until 1979. He died in 2001, and his death certificate lists a secondary cause of his death as asbestosis from inhaling taconite dust. Eller said she was angry that information about the link between the miners and cancer was withheld for a year.

"It should have been released to the public," Eller, of Shakopee, said Tuesday night. "The saying is, 'The buck stops here.' Well, it stopped at her office door, her desk, and she's got to be held accountable."

Mandernach had supporters, too.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the lead Republican on the Legislature's Health Care and Human Finances Division, said the news caught him by surprise.

"I'm sad to hear it. I think she was a good commissioner -- very devoted to her work," he said.

Mandernach, a former nun and teacher, was chief executive of the Mercy Hospital & Health Care Center in Moose Lake, Minn., from 1994 to 2003.

Raising questions

On Tuesday, Tomassoni renewed his questioning about who knew what, and when.

"Did the governor really know about the deaths?" he said. "Is he part of the cover-up? Is Mandernach's resignation an attempt to take attention off other things?"

Pawlenty, who appointed Mandernach in 2003, had chastised her for the delay but said she would not be fired.

"We were told from the outset that the commissioner wouldn't resign, that the governor was giving her his full backing," Tomassoni said. "You see that there were reports that the bridge was falling apart, and you wonder how many other things are going on in this administration that need attention and are being ignored. Who knows what else is collapsing around us?"

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said he was pleased that Mandernach quit. He's chairman of the Senate's Health, Housing and Family Security Committee.

"She's a good person, but not right for this job," Marty said. "I can't picture her making that decision on her own. The governor's office had been fully aware of the information and clearly didn't intervene to make it public."

Marty said his misgivings began about a year after her appointment, when Mandernach was forced to remove the wording on the website that claimed a link between abortion and breast cancer.

"She told me it was her judgment to override all of the scientific information at the time," Marty said.

Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, serves on the Health and Human Services budget division and took part in June's hearings about the cancer data. "It seemed obvious to me that the commissioner was protecting someone higher up," she said. "I would like to think of her as a good woman who got pressured to do things by higher powers, someone whose good conscience compelled her to step away from that position."

Meanwhile, Pawlenty praised Mandernach:

"Her work in areas such as strengthening emergency preparedness, promoting healthy behaviors, reducing health disparities, expanding health information technology, and improving how we report on the quality of health care have helped people and our state."

Staff writer D.J. Tice contributed to this report. • 612-673-7750 • 651-222-1288

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