Massachusetts interim public health commissioner stepping down

Dr. Lauren Smith, appointed Massachusetts interim public health commissioner last fall in the wake of two scandals that rocked the agency, said Friday she will step down from the position next month after finalizing the state’s first rules to regulate the use of medical marijuana.

Smith, who specializes in childhood health and served as the department’s medical director since 2007, wrote in an email to staffers that the “last several months have been difficult” for the department and for “those of us that care deeply about this agency’s work in public health.”

Here is her email to staff:

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Dear colleagues,

I am writing to let you know that I will be leaving my position as interim Commissioner. I informed Secretary Polanowicz that I would stay to oversee the development of the final regulations for a medical marijuana dispensary system and that my last day with the Department will be May 10. Wrapping up the development of those critical regulations offers a natural transition point and allows the Secretary a chance to assemble his own team as he guides the Commonwealth’s health and human services agenda for final phase of the Patrick Administration.

The past five and a half years have been some of the most rewarding of my career. Even on the difficult days, I felt the important work that we did together on behalf of all Massachusetts residents was an example of the vital role public health plays in the lives of the people of Massachusetts. I was inspired to join the Department because of Governor Patrick’s compelling call for state government to accept the challenge of working better and smarter for the wellbeing of the people of the Commonwealth. It has been my honor and privilege to serve our fellow residents with you.

I am confident that our efforts over the past five years have had a positive impact on the health of Massachusetts. Those efforts included a successful statewide response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic, developing cutting edge sports head injury regulations that are a model for other states, establishing the Massachusetts Perinatal Quality Collaborative to aggressively improve health outcomes for mothers and infants and launching community initiatives to combat childhood obesity, among others.

The last several months have been difficult for DPH and for those of us that care deeply about this agency’s work in public health. But, as we’ve worked together to stabilize the Department, it is clear that we have laid a foundation for a stronger future. With the expected additional staffing and resources that I am grateful that the Governor supported in our FY14 budget, I am confident that DPH will have what it needs to execute its regulatory responsibilities and protect the health of the 6.6 million residents of the Commonwealth.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for the dedication to sound public health principles, the innovative best practices and the professionalism that have characterized the work of this department over the past several months and throughout my tenure at DPH.

As a pediatrician, I often counseled worried parents about how resilient children are: that given the right care, attention and love that they could overcome most problems and thrive in the years ahead. I feel similarly about nurturing the mission of this great Department, and I am hopeful for a much brighter future – one that you all are building together.

I will be taking some time to catch my breath before moving on to my next role. Please know that whatever comes next for me, I will actively and strongly support the work of this Department and public health in the Commonwealth. Thank you for your service and for the support, guidance and friendship through the years. You have all left your mark on me.

Sincerely,

Lauren Smith

And here is the message Smith’s boss, state health secretary John Polanowicz, sent to colleagues regarding her departure:

Colleagues,

Since last fall, Dr. Lauren Smith has led the Department of Public Health forward as interim commissioner during a crucial time. Under Lauren’s leadership, the Department advanced initiatives to reduce youth tobacco use, enhance oversight of compounding pharmacies and create medical marijuana regulations that are right for Massachusetts.

Lauren has informed me that she will be stepping down as interim commissioner and leaving the Department on May 10. Please join me in thanking Dr. Smith for her strong leadership and vision during her tenure at the Department of Public Health.

As interim commissioner, and earlier as DPH medical director, Lauren achieved many accomplishments, including:

•Enhanced Pharmacy Oversight: As interim commissioner, Lauren was at the front of the state’s efforts to respond to the NECC national fungal meningitis outbreak. She testified in front of Congress in support of our strong regulations to enhance pharmacy oversight and helped advance the Governor’s budget and legislative proposals.

•Medical Marijuana Regulations: Lauren oversaw the development of our draft medical marijuana regulations which have received support from numerous professional organizations and stakeholders. The draft regulations create a balanced system that protects patient needs while maintaining safe communities.

•Youth Tobacco Prevention: Under Lauren’s leadership as medical director and interim commissioner, youth tobacco use decreased in Massachusetts. DPH has led the push for a $1 increase in taxes on cigarettes and increased educational awareness around other tobacco products marketed towards youth.

•H1N1 response: During the H1N1 pandemic, Lauren provided extensive guidance and assistance to schools and local public health departments to limit transmissions and school closures, while also protecting pregnant women.

•Sports Head Injury Rules: Lauren oversaw development of sports head injury regulations that are helping schools prevent injuries. These regulations have been recognized by the national Centers for Disease Control as best practices for other states to look towards.

I thank Lauren for her leadership of DPH during this time. Her work has led to enhanced public health and renewed public trust in the Department. We have launched a search for a successor to take over as commissioner in the near future and I look forward to providing you with additional updates soon.

In the meantime, we are grateful that Lauren will assist with finalization of medical marijuana regulations and other important initiatives over the coming weeks during this transition period.

On behalf of the Commonwealth, please join me in thanking Lauren for her important work.

Sincerely

John Polanowicz, Secretary

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