Magnan named new health commissionerby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's new commissioner of health pledged on Thursday to be an open leader whose decisions will be transparent. Dr. Sanne Magnan replaces Dianne Mandernach, who resigned after facing a fire storm of criticism over her decision to withhold data for a year on rare cancer deaths in miners.
Magnan said openness is very important to building trust. She said under her leadership the Health Department will be as forthright as possible with the Minnesotans it serves.
This is not an easy time to take the helm of the Minnesota Department of Health. Its credibility has been called in to question and insiders say staff morale is at an all-time low.
But Dr. Sanne Magnan says she is excited about her new job and the opportunity to work with some of the nation's brightest public health scientists and researchers.
"The number of staff goes on and on who deserve medals for what they are doing behind the scenes every day to protect the health of Minnesotans," she said.
When asked whether she could ever envision a scenario where she wouldn't share health risk data with the public, Magnan replied that she didn't want to speculate on what she might do. She said there could be privacy issues at stake or concerns about the accuracy of the information in question. But Magnan said her extensive medical and scientific background would be an asset in helping her figure out what to do.
"I always as a physician and scientist will be looking at data," she said. "I will be working with all those staff that I told you that are in the Minnesota Department of Health who are experts, who have committed themselves to public service, to actually be able to be that transparent about what we know and what we don't know to serve the citizens of Minnesota."
Magnan holds three degrees: an undergraduate degree in pharmacy, a PhD in medical chemistry and a medical degree. She has been a staff physician at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes. She's currently president of the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement, a non-profit health care quality improvement organization.
Gov. Pawlenty called her a stellar candidate with an incredible set of credentials.
"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 and we're glad that she does," Pawlenty said.
Magnan says she will focus on making sure the state has a strong public health infrastructure. She's also interested in prevention. She said the state's 75-cent-per-pack tax increase on tobacco approved in 2005 is a smart public health strategy.
But when asked if she would support raising Minnesota's cigarette tax even more, Magnan acknowledged the complexity of her new role.
"I'm always in favor, but I recognize there are political times when that's the time to bring that forward and there are times that they're not," she said.
When it comes to abortion, Magnan describes herself as pro-life. But she says her views won't cloud her professional obligations. Pawlenty said Magnan's views on abortion did not factor into his decision to give her the commissioner's job.
Dr. Jim Hart, who worked with Magnan several years ago at a clinic in St. Paul, says she is a good listener and an extremely hard-working person.
"One of my lasting memories is to be still walking around the clinic at maybe 7:30 - 8:00 or so in the evening and Sanne would still be on the computer there carefully detailing all the facts about some of the patients she had seen that day, so she's a very, very diligent, careful practitioner," he said. Magnan's appointment apparently met with approval among many attendees at a community health conference in Brainerd.
"I can tell you the general attitude up here is one of 'oh boy, the nightmare may be over," said John Finnegan, the dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. "So many people are just really pleased with what the governor has done here. I think he's really hit a homerun on this one."
Finnegan says Magnan's biggest challenge will be regaining the support of the Iron Range legislators who lost confidence in the Department after the cancer data controversy. But he says Magnan appears to have the credibility to win them back.
- All Things Considered, 09/27/2007, 5:20 p.m.