ST. PAUL – Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach sat in the hot seat for nearly four hours Tuesday as lawmakers cross-examined her on the decision to hold back research showing 35 Iron Range miners with a rare form of cancer.
Mandernach's agency released the mesothelioma findings March 28, a year after she was first briefed on the new cases – nearly double the number known publicly at the time. Lawmakers and others have called for her resignation and questioned the damage inflicted on the Minnesota Health Department, known for the quality of its work.
Lawmakers weren't appeased, even though Mandernach started out by apologizing for what she said was her mistake. She said she wanted to line up money for more studies before letting the new facts out, but shouldn't have waited.
"I did not want to compound the frustrations of the past without having a plan for the future," the commissioner told a joint hearing of two legislative health panels. "In retrospect it was an error in judgment and I accept responsibility for that error."
Iron Range lawmakers were particularly dissatisfied with her words.
"This goes beyond a mistake," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm. "You didn't get the job done. You didn't do your job. You hid the information."
"This is a major, major screw-up," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. "It seems to be evident that somebody's trying to hide the screw-up. When you try to hide a screw-up, it becomes a cover-up."
As several dozen lawmakers leafed through internal Health Department documents – including backup news releases in case the information leaked to the media – the situation drew comparisons to the CIA and the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, suggested that Gov. Tim Pawlenty should echo President Bush's praise of former FEMA chief Michael Brown by telling Mandernach "heckuva job, Mandy." Mandernach didn't respond when given the chance.
Pawlenty appointed Mandernach, a former hospital chief executive, to her $108,400-a-year job in 2003. He criticized her handling of the cancer data last week, but hasn't asked her to quit.
Carolyn Jones, who works in the GOP governor's office, said the administration directed the Health Department to move ahead with the release after the governor's staff members were briefed in mid-February.
After she was briefed on the new cases in March 2006, Mandernach said she hoped to get federal money for more studies. But she told lawmakers the department's application was rejected in August 2006 and had no real explanation for why she didn't come to lawmakers for money during the 2007 legislative session. She said the proposal didn't make the department's cut.
Dr. Alan Bender, manager of the department's Chronic Disease and Environmental Epidemiology Section, told lawmakers he wanted the data out sooner and pushed for its release.
Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer linked to asbestos. The state has now identified 58 miners with mesothelioma, including six cases announced last week. The data comes from comparing the state's cancer registry with a database of mining workers.
Many Iron Rangers suspect taconite dust as the cause of mesothelioma, and the department has promised to look at links between the dust and the cancer in its latest study. Symptoms of mesothelioma can take 30 to 50 years to appear after exposure.
"A lot of our retirees think there's been a conspiracy on this issue for many years and now it comes to light that this information's been held back – it's just going to convince them more," said Stan Daniels, a United Steelworkers lobbyist. "You're really going to hear about it on Thursday when you're up on the Range."
Mandernach is on the agenda for another legislative hearing Thursday in Mountain Iron.