Health commissioner faces hard questions at hearing

On the hot seat
State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach faced tough questions from lawmakers Tuesday about her decision to delay release of information about cancer-related deaths among miners in northeastern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Lawmakers took turns offering blistering criticism of Mandernach, her failure to release the findings and the way she handled the department during the four-and-a-half-hour hearing. At times, Mandernach sat and watched for extended periods as lawmakers ripped her actions and her agency. She was near tears when one lawmaker called her actions a "cover-up."

For her part, Mandernach apologized again for not releasing the data sooner. She said she was looking for federal funding to do more research on the issue.

"I wanted to release the data on the new cases of mesothelioma, along with our plan for seeking for federal funding to conduct a study so that we could assure the Iron Range community that we were doing everything possible to respond to the lingering questions about mesothelioma on the Range," she said.

Mesothelioma is a sensitive topic on the Iron Range, especially since it's been vexing scientists and frustrating mine workers for decades. Mandernach said the decision to not release the data was hers alone. That became more evident after the lead scientist on the issue told the committee that he urged his colleagues to release the data sooner.

Alan Bender said he wanted miners, health care providers and others to learn about the information as soon as possible.

"This is absolutely shocking what's going on here, Commissioner. ... I would hope you would resign after this hearing."

"I wanted to make sure that they got this information first before anyone else did," Bender said. "I was more concerned that this would end up in the media before we got a chance to do that."

Bender said his supervisors prevented him from releasing the information.

Several lawmakers who represent the Iron Range say Mandernach's actions were irresponsible.

"This goes beyond a mistake. You didn't get the job done," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm. Sertich pointed to internal Health Department documents suggesting that department officials were more concerned about spinning the release of the data and whether the information would be leaked to the press. He said Mandernach could have also asked state lawmakers to fund a study, which did not happen.

"You didn't do your job. You hid the information. There's no clearer way. It's black and white. You're not going to have better answers by just saying you're going to look to the federal government for funding because you were already turned down once. You had multiple opportunities for the state to fund this. This goes beyond a mistake," he said.

Mandernach had no explanation as to why she didn't ask for state money except to say it didn't "make the cut."

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, asked Mandernach what she would do if the department did not receive federal funding for the research. Bakk's 28-year-old son works in the industry.

"I don't want to wait 10 years, 15 years or whenever you're successful at getting funding and spend three years or five years waiting for the results before he polishes up his resume and finds another place to work because I don't want him dead before me," he said. "And I think any parent of some young person who wants to go work in that industry needs to know what the occupational hazards are."

Mandernach said she would ask state lawmakers for funding in next year's session if their application is denied.

That's not soon enough for Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. He urged Gov. Pawlenty to call a special session so lawmakers can fund a study right away. Tomassoni also expressed concern that a Health Department official asked his colleagues in an e-mail for advice on the best way to write a news release on the miner deaths.

"We have to actually make sure that people who died have a good news release? What's going on here? This is absolutely shocking what's going on here, commissioner. I would hope that if you really truly are responsible for your decision in running the department in this way, I would hope you would resign after this hearing," he said.

Tomassoni also questioned Mandernach on why it took six months to inform the governor's office about the findings. Mandernach said she informed an official in Pawlenty's office in October, but didn't fully brief them until February. Pawlenty criticized Mandernach's handling of the issue last week but has not asked her to resign.

Mandernach said after the hearing that she would not resign because she wants to see the issue through.

"We need to get the answers so that we can inform the miners about what it is that is the relationship between their work in the mine and mesothelioma," she said.

Mandernach may have work to restore the Health Department's credibility on the Iron Range. Stan Daniels, with the United Steelworkers Union, said the department's actions reinforce longstanding beliefs.

"It's just going to convince them more that there are bodies holding back this information and somebody doesn't want to let this information out," he said. "And now they've finally caught somebody doing it and you're going to really hear about it on Thursday when you're up on the Range."

Mandernach is expected to attend that Thursday committee hearing in Mountain Iron.