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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Patrick appoints interim head of health agency

Governor Deval Patrick sharpened his criticism Thursday of the state Pharmacy Board’s oversight of the Framingham pharmacy linked to the national fungal meningitis outbreak, as his administration announced a new leader for the troubled department that oversees the board.

Patrick said that the board, at his direction, plans to revoke the licenses of New England Compounding Center and three pharmacists in charge, but that “it shouldn’t have taken death by meningitis to get there.”

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He made the remarks during his monthly segment on WTKK-FM and added that his staff is looking into why the board failed to discipline New England Compounding, despite multiple complaints and violations.

“The question I think a lot of us have been asking, that I have been asking, is where’s the point where you say, enough’s enough?” Patrick said.

A senior administration health official had defended the board Tuesday.

On Thursday, leaders of the state Senate announced plans to hold public hearings on the meningitis outbreak, State House News Service reported. The hearings were announced by Senate President Therese Murray, minority leader Bruce Tarr, Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee chairman Mark Montigny, and the committee’s ranking Republican, Senator Robert Hedlund.

Later Thursday, the administration said it has tapped Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the state Department of ­Public Health since 2007, to take over as interim commissioner of the department.

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Smith, who specializes in childhood health, will inherit a department that is under scrutiny after two scandals: the meningitis outbreak and the mishandling of drug evidence by a chemist at the agency’s former drug lab, which has jeopardized thousands of criminal cases.

John Auerbach, her predecessor, announced his resignation from the Department of Public Health last month after five years in the job.

Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, state secretary of health and human services, said in a statement Thursday that Smith “starts her role at a critical time.”

Bigby said Smith has led the department’s efforts to promote public health in the state’s schools and to address health disparities in communities. She played a central role last year in helping to develop revamped school nutrition rules, among the nation’s most stringent.

Smith’s clinical and academic work has focused on child health disparities and the ­impact of public policy on child well-being. Prior to joining the department, she served as medical director of inpatient pediatrics and of the Medical-Legal Partnership at Boston Medical Center. She completed her residency and chief residency at Boston ­Children’s Hospital and her fellowship in general pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.

Dr. Robert Vinci, interim chairman of the department of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, has known Smith for 15 years and said that even in training, she showed a remarkable ability to forge consensus and find creative solutions to tough problems.

“There are times, as a leader, you will be faced with needing to make a decision and there may not be one single best path, and that can sometimes paralyze leaders,” Vinci said. ­“Lauren can make a decision and she will live with it.”

Smith graduated from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and has a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. She completed her under­graduate studies at ­Harvard College.

A Patrick administration spokesman said the search continues for a permanent commissioner.

Chelsea Conaboy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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