Health director says she was forced out

Wooley's boss says her 'personal values' didn'

July 2, 2009 

Dept. of Health and Human Services director Beverly Wooley.

ERIK HILL / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

One of the state's top public health officials says she was forced out of office because Gov. Sarah Palin felt she wasn't in step on social issues.

Beverly Wooley, who has worked more than 20 years in public health in Alaska, most of it with the municipality of Anchorage, ended her stint as state public health director on Wednesday.

She's the second top health official to leave within days. The state's chief medical officer, Jay Butler, left in late June after declining to take on Wooley's job along with his own. He now is in Atlanta, overseeing a U.S. Centers for Disease Control task force on a vaccine to protect against the H1N1 flu virus.

The division has about 550 employees and a budget of $100 million. It includes nurses and epidemiologists, health facility inspectors and keepers of birth and death records. Its staff members run health laboratories and try to prevent diseases like HIV and diabetes.

The key source of tension was legislation that would have required girls under age 17 to get parental consent for an abortion, Wooley said Thursday. The bill, which Palin actively supported, passed the state House but stalled in the Senate.

Wooley and Butler both said they were prepared to testify before the Senate Health and Social Services Committee about the bill, but the panel ran out of time and they never got the chance. "We were signed up," Wooley said.

Wooley said she made it clear to the administration beforehand that she was prepared to articulate the governor's position: "That the governor supported the full parental consent and notification but that she would compromise."

The compromise, agreed to by the House sponsor, state Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, would require girls to notify their parents before an abortion, but not get permission.

Wooley said she also intended to answer questions from legislators and said she would rely on data, not anyone's personal beliefs. Whether she personally agreed with the governor is beside the point, Wooley said.

She intended to refer to studies from states that already had passed similar legislation, she said. Some of the research shows that, with parental involvement requirements, girls tend to get abortions later in their pregnancy, which is riskier and more expensive, she said. Other research shows fewer girls get abortions, which abortion foes like Palin likely would applaud. Wooley cautioned that the studies are small and not definitive because such laws are still fairly new.

"You let those facts speak for themselves. And truly, people will interpret those facts differently based on their own personal history and experience," Wooley said.

Palin declined to comment Thursday, calling the situation a personnel matter within the Department of Health and Social Services. Bill Hogan, health commissioner, also declined comment, based on advice from the Department of Law.

"I'm sorry I can't say more," Hogan said through a spokeswoman.

However, Hogan did talk to the Alaska Budget Report, a capital newsletter. In a story in the June 21 edition, Hogan described Wooley as having difficulty articulating the governor's position on the abortion measure, as well as teen pregnancy prevention.

"I think frankly this is something we have to deal with within our department when your personal values don't line up with where the governor wants to go, you've just got to reconcile that somehow," Hogan is quoted as saying.

"She felt she just couldn't get up there (in legislative committees) and articulate the governor's position. ... She asked, 'Suppose the data or the scientific information says something different -- can I say that?' I said, 'Yes, but when it comes to saying the governor's position, you need to say that.' It just became more and more apparent that she could not get up there and do it."

In an interview earlier this week, Butler said Wooley was ready to relay Palin's view to legislators.

"To me it was healthy discussion to help clarify what the messages were," Butler said.

At any rate, Butler said, he was among a group of public health officials concerned about the consent measure. When Coghill, the prime sponsor, asked him to meet and talk about his views as a physician, Butler said he expressed worries that requiring parental consent could endanger some girls desperate for an abortion. After that, Coghill agreed to a compromise just requiring notification.

Hogan asked Wooley to resign on June 1, saying she wasn't aligned with the governor on policy questions and also that the department was trying to operate more efficiently by combining her job with Butler's. He told her it wasn't performance-based, she said. She refused to resign and was dismissed.

Butler was offered Wooley's job, along with his own, but instead chose to return to the CDC for a few months as the flu vaccine is developed. He had been on loan to the state.

Wooley said her office did get direct criticism from the governor's office regarding the wording of a press release on teen pregnancy. The governor didn't like a quote from one of Wooley's staff so the quote was removed.

Wooley said she never had a policy discussion with Palin on any health topic, and they never met one-on-one.

The shake-up in public health comes after a busy spring for division staff. Nurses went to the Bush to help flooded villages. A few workers responded to a Homer wildfire. The agency was consumed with its response to the swine flu even before the first cases were reported in Alaska.

One high profile effort under Wooley's watch was the state's takeover of the Mary Conrad Center, a struggling nursing home in Anchorage that the state ran for months and recently turned over to new management.

"Beverly was one of the best people we had," Butler said.

Before Butler, the state didn't have a chief medical officer above the division head. With the tightening state budget, the Palin administration viewed the position as a luxury. Hogan told the Alaska Budget Report he wants a physician to run the public health division but hasn't started recruiting yet.

"I was hoping that somebody would fall out of the sky," Hogan said.

For her part, Wooley said she'll enjoy summer off in Alaska -- she loves to hike and fish -- then figure out what to do next.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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