BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Deval Patrick expressed confidence Thursday in state Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby after House Republicans demanded her removal, citing "poor management" of two recent crises.
In a letter to the governor, the GOP said the department was in need of new leadership. It said Bigby failed to respond adequately to a drug testing scandal at a now-closed state lab that threatens to unravel thousands of criminal cases and to the national outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to a Framingham compounding pharmacy.
Both cases involve state agencies under the umbrella of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the largest cabinet secretariat in state government, which has an annual budget of about $8.6 billion.
"Poor management has allowed these problems to escalate, and it takes a strong and effective manager to solve them," the Republican lawmakers said in the letter to Patrick, which also cited what they called an "unacceptable" response by Bigby to questions posed at a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
Patrick's spokeswoman, Kimberly Haberlin, said in a statement that Bigby continues to enjoy the governor's support.
"She has served the public with distinction and integrity throughout her tenure and has accepted full responsibility for the breakdown 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."
House Republican Leader Brad Jones said the decision to call for the secretary to step down or be replaced was not taken lightly.
"This isn't about simple policy differences. This is about much more than that," Jones, R-North Reading, said at a news conference Thursday. "This is about moving an agency forward that desperately needs to regain the public trust on many, many different fronts."
Jones said Bigby's testimony at Wednesday's oversight hearing on the drug lab was "uninspiring, and I would say less than forthcoming."
Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, R-North Attleborough, said the costs of fixing the damage done by the drug lab and pharmacy crises could be "staggering" for the state.
Bigby should "do the right thing and step down and give that position to someone who can step in with fresh eyes and right the wrongs that have been done," Poirier said.
The GOP lawmakers did not cite specific examples of what they believed the secretary should have done differently, nor did they say what remedies they might propose in the legislative session starting in January.
It is expected that some members of Patrick's cabinet will depart on their own as the Democrat enters the final two years of his second and what he has said will be his final term as governor. Bigby was noncommittal on Wednesday when asked if she planned to remain in her job through the end of the Patrick administration.
A Boston resident, Bigby was an executive at Brigham and Women's Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School before her appointment by Patrick in 2007.
"The events that led to the crisis at the former DPH drug lab and the national meningitis outbreak are tragic and unacceptable, and people have been held accountable for these lapses," Bigby's spokesman, Alec Loftus, said in statement Thursday.
"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," Loftus added.
A former chemist at the drug lab is accused of skirting protocols and manipulating samples she tested over a nine-year period.
The meningitis outbreak, which has been blamed for 36 deaths nationwide, has been linked to a steroid produced by the New England Compounding Center. The company was regulated by the Massachusetts Board of Pharmacy.