Accolades For Auerbach, Public Health Chief Falling On Sword

John Auerbach, outgoing head of the state Department of Public Health (Photo: Office of Gov. Deval Patrick)

A few years ago, a former newspaper boss of mine took a public fall from a very high place for making a decision that turned out to be wrong. I knew him as brilliant, wise and deeply virtuous. When I asked him what happened, he said something like: “I felt like an outfielder who was constantly racing to catch potentially disastrous fly balls. I caught one after another after another, averting impending disasters — and then I missed one.”

I keep thinking of that answer as I watch the accolades roll in for John Auerbach, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health who has resigned amid the exploding scandal around a scientist who falsified reports at the state drug lab.

The latest comes today on Paul Levy’s “Not Running A Hospital” blog. It begins:

It is a sign of the times that one of the most able, experienced, and thoughtful of our state’s public administrators has had to take the fall for a series of events that would have been virtually impossible for him to prevent.

Auerbach said in his resignation statement that he felt a responsibility to uphold the Patrick administration’s high ideals, to which Levy responds:

But the “high ideals” he cites of the Governor apparently do not include the concept that this could have happened in any administration (and indeed apparently started well before John’s tenure). Those ideals apparently do not include the concept that someone who has been an exemplary public servant deserves a chance (if he wanted) to try to remedy the underlying problem of the agency. Those ideals apparently do not include any self-blame for the people still higher in the administration, who filed the extremely tight budgets for this agency for several years that may also have contributed to an inability to conduct proper oversight.

Levy’s is just the latest note in a chorus of praise and regret that has followed Auerbach’s resignation announcement. A colleague sent me a one-word email — “Tragic.” — when the news first broke. Official statements have tended to go like this one:

Local Public Health Officials have expressed disappointment over the announcement of Commissioner of Public Health John Auerbach’s resignation. United as the Coalition for Local Public Health (CLPH), representatives of the state’s five professional organizations representing local health professionals have applauded the work the Commissioner has been involved in over the past 6 years.

That statement particularly praised Auerbach’s work during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, and includes this quote: “John has been a wonderful friend to local public health” says Marcia Benes, Executive Director of MAHB.” And this:

Programs that have made an impact under his leadership include Mass in Motion, designed to encourage residents to exercise as just one way to fight the obesity epidemic, and the adoption of strict nutritional requirements for school lunch programs state wide. He worked to increase resources to attack youth access to tobacco products by increasing funding to local programs. He has encouraged appropriate regionalization efforts where they make sense, releasing funds to foster those efforts to better serve the residents in those communities

Local Health partners across the state, and the 3500 members which represent the CLPH organizations, respect his tenacity, resolve and strength and will miss his friendship and leadership.

Full disclosure: I’ll miss him, too. As a reporter, I’m supposed to be objective, but as a blogger, I think I’m allowed to comment a bit on the meta-game:  I’ve appreciated every professional dealing I’ve had with John Auerbach — even when he’s politely refused to be interviewed on a topic I wanted to write about — and on a personal level, let’s face it, the guy is clearly just a widely beloved mensch. His future students at Northeastern, where he’ll be a professor and director of the Urban Health Research Institute, are very lucky.

Below, for nostalgia’s sake, is one of CommonHealth’s first videos — and by the way, the advice applies for this year as well.

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