Political Intelligence

State House Republicans call for ouster of Patrick’s HHS chief in wake of state drug lab crisis

Republican lawmakers said today that Governor Deval Patrick’s health and human services secretary should resign because she did not act with enough urgency in responding to the tainted evidence scandal at a closed state drug lab.

“This isn’t about simply policy differences,” said Representative Bradley H. Jones. Jr. , the Republican leader from North Reading. “This is about much more than that. This is about moving an agency forward that desperately needs to regain public trust on many, many, fronts and needs to go in a dramatically different direction.”

Jones was joined at a State House press conference by four other members of his leadership team in calling for Dr. JudyAnn Bigby’s ouster. The group also wrote a letter to Patrick today underscoring their demand that Patrick replace Bigby to regain public trust in the agency, which was responsible for oversight of the drug lab in Jamaica Plain.

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He said Bigby should have responded more quickly, when the problem surfaced, as if a fire alarm had been set off.

Though Republicans hold scant power on Beacon Hill, their call to replace Bigby is a reminder that the allegedly tainted samples of thousands of drug samples remains a significant political liability for Patrick, a Democrat.

Patrick and other officials have blamed the problems on former state chemist Annie Dookhan, whom they have called a rogue employee at the former Department of Public Health lab where workers once tested contraband seized during drug investigations.

But defense attorneys, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services have insisted the problems were not limited to Dookhan and have called for reversing convictions in cases where drugs were tested at the lab. State officials have said Dookhan alone played a role in cases involving at least 10,000 people.

Bigby is also involved in the state’s response to a deadly meningitis outbreak that has been linked to a private compounding pharmacy based in Framingham, but Jones did not allude to that issue in his public comments or letter.

Kimberly Haberlin, a spokeswoman for Patrick, said in a statement that he wants her to remain on the job.

“Secretary Bigby has the Governor’s support. She has served the public with distinction and integrity throughout her tenure and has accepted full responsibility for the breakdowns at the Department of Public Health,’’ Haberlin said. “The Governor expects her to focus on fixing what went wrong and restoring the public’s confidence in the Department. That is where her focus is now.”

A spokesman for Bigby, Alec Loftus, said in an email that the events that led to the crisis at the state drug lab, and a separate crisis in a private compounding pharmacy that led to a nationwide meningitis outbreak, “are tragic and unacceptable, and people have been held accountable for these lapses.”

“We are taking action to ensure that these events are never allowed to happen again,” he continued. “Secretary Bigby serves at the pleasure of the governor and she is responsible for the management of Health and Human Services. She has and will continue to take the necessary actions to restore confidence in our public health department as it continues to provide quality services to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable populations.”

The CPCS, the state’s public defender agency, estimated this week that it could need up to $332 million to represent thousands of people who faced criminal or civil penalties based on evidence processed at the drug lab that has now been called into question. Patrick on Wednesday disputed that estimate.

The governor is in the process of making several changes in his senior staff, but has not announced whether any of his cabinet secretaries would be leaving as he completes the final two years of his second term.

Jones was asked whether a GOP call to remove Bigby could have the opposite effect, making Patrick more determined to fight for her. Jones said it would be a “sad indictment of the governor” if Patrick chose to retain Bigby simply to rebuff Republicans.

No Democrats joined Jones at his press conference, but he said that several have told him privately that they agree Bigby should step aside. He said he found her performance during a legislative hearing on Wednesday that addressed the drug lab scandal to be uninspiring and “less than forthcoming.”

In his letter, Jones pointed to a comment Bigby made during the hearing when she said that the acts of an individual can defeat quality control procedures. “Ultimately even with the checks and balances and excellent policy and procedures, if an individual decides to behave in this way, I don’t know that it can always be prevented,’’ Bigby said, according to Jones.

“That response is simply unacceptable,” Jones said of her comment.

The letter says that Bigby “does not possess the ability, nor inspire the confidence of the public, necessary to lead this agency going forward.”

“We have eagerly awaited your administration’s testimony over the last few weeks and after the past two public hearings our conclusion has become abundantly clear,” the letter continues. “Poor management has allowed these problems to escalate, and it will take a strong and effective manager to solve them. While we recognize that Secretary Bigby holds a deep knowledge in the healthcare field, her conduct and subsequent comments demonstrate a lack of management skills required for this daunting task.”

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