New Health Commissioner Faces Tough Task Rebuilding Trust

posted on:
September 27, 2007

author:
Staff

 Dr. Sanne Magnan has a list of priorities as she takes over the Minnesota Department of Health, but one of the biggest tasks isn't mentioned: Repairing the damage done by her predecessor. 

Magnan, a 55-year-old doctor of internal medicine, inherits an agency seared by criticism over the summer when it came out that her predecessor, Dianne Mandernach, withheld information about a spike in a rare form of cancer among Iron Range miners.

The revelation inflamed Democratic lawmakers, some of whom are still fuming over the incident.

As Magnan was introduced as the state's new health commissioner on Thursday, she sought to calm the tensions, repeatedly speaking about the importance of sharing data with the public and mentioning her background as a scientist and physician. She later compared the agency's job to a doctor's.

"You say, `Here's what I know, here's what I don't know, here's what we're going to do to monitor it,'" she said. "I would take the same kind of approach with the public."

She added: "There are honest times when we have information and we don't know what it means. That doesn't mean you can't share it. It just means you need to share it in a way that lets people know what you have."

The choice of Magnan – who currently heads an organization focused on improving results in the health care system – was met with caution and some optimism by legislators who had criticized Mandernach. Except in health policy circles, Magnan's name isn't well-known around the Capitol.

"This commissioner has to be honest," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, one of the Iron Range Democrats who wanted Mandernach out. "When there's something that's going to affect the public health, the public's got to know, and it has to be immediate or as soon as humanly possible."

Sen. Linda Berglin, the Senate's lead Democrat on health and welfare issues, said Magnan has "utmost integrity."

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty heaped praise on Magnan at a Capitol news conference, calling her a stellar candidate for the job. He said he expects her to lead discussion of health care reform in Minnesota.

"She's a very forward-looking person," he said. "Again, she is extremely qualified for the job. She has the right heart for public service and, candidly, she's doing this at a big sacrifice because she wants to serve."

Magnan opposes legalized abortion and supports higher tobacco prices to discourage youth smoking. She said she's excited that a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants begins next Monday. Her goals include preparing for public health emergencies, preventing disease and health problems and making the health care system work better.

She wouldn't say how she would handle informing the public about abortion and sexual abstinence, saying she needs to know more about what the state health agency is doing now.

Magnan said she was offered the job in Pawlenty's cabinet on Tuesday and expects to start around Nov. 1. The former Blue Cross and Blue Shield executive will quit her current job as president of the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement in Bloomington, but said she hopes to keep working at a St. Paul tuberculosis clinic where she's on staff.

Magnan is one of the minds behind the Blue Cross "do" campaign, which encourages people to be active.

She said she understands the level of concern about the miners' cancer, mesothelioma, and wants to listen to the recommendations of department researchers and pursue further action.

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