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HHS chief escapes flak, handles crises

Focuses on mission amid thorny issues

Health and Human Services chief John Polanowicz took office in January 2013 after two public health scandals.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Health and Human Services chief John Polanowicz took office in January 2013 after two public health scandals.

Almost from the moment he walked in the door, John Polanowicz, the Patrick administration health secretary in charge of some of the state’s most troubled agencies, has been fighting fires.

In his 16 months in office, he has faced a string of crises, the latest at the Department of Children and Families, whose commissioner resigned Tuesday after child-protection workers mishandled cases in which three children died.

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But the 51-year-old Polanowicz has largely dodged the flak that has been aimed at some of his commissioners, in part because supporters and critics alike describe the former Army Black Hawk helicopter company commander as engaging, smart, and accessible.

A handful of detractors fault him for being slow at times to reveal his plans for fixing problems, and for not outlining a grand vision for the sprawling Health and Human Services bureaucracy. But even Republican lawmakers have given him a pass.

“One of the reasons he hasn’t come under heavy criticism is that a lot of these controversies were in process or were there before he took over as secretary, said Representative George N. Peterson Jr., the House assistant minority leader.

“It’s like an ocean liner,” said Peterson, a Grafton Republican. “You can’t turn that thing around overnight.”

Polanowicz, a longtime hospital administrator, oversees 15 state agencies that provide services for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, children, those with mental health issues, and veterans, and regulate a big part of the state’s economy, including doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, and pharmacies.

When he took office in January 2013, the beleaguered Department of Public Health had just weathered back-to-back scandals: A crime lab chemist had mishandled thousands of drug samples, and a fatal fungal meningitis outbreak had been linked to tainted drugs produced at a Framingham pharmacy.

More recently, the health department has endured criticism about its process for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, a process that began under Polanowicz’s watch. A number of problems have surfaced about misrepresentations and conflicts of interest involving several companies approved for provisional state licenses, and state officials have acknowledged they did not check the veracity of applicants’ claims.

In an interview with the Globe, Polanowicz said that health department staffers erred in assuming that people applying for marijuana licenses would be similar to those the agency routinely deals with in regulating hospitals and community health centers. The department does not typically encounter applicants in those industries with arrest records and other legal problems, issues that have cropped up in the marijuana licensing process.

“In hindsight, we ought not to have thought that we would not have people with no issues in their backgrounds apply,” he said. “The focus now is to try to get this right for the patients before we open the dispensaries.”

State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, who is investigating the state’s dispensary selection process as chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, has repeatedly criticized the agency’s snail’s pace in answering his questions. He has been waiting about six weeks for the state’s latest responses.

But Sánchez said Polanowicz has not shied away from difficult private discussions even if he can’t answer all of his questions.

“He is not the kind of person to walk away, and he knows his subject matter,” Sánchez said.

Joshua Archambault, a senior fellow on health care at the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts free-market oriented public policy firm, said Polanowicz and the Patrick administration have been “very aloof” to the issues that have plagued the state’s troubled health insurance marketplace and slow to address them.

Polanowicz’s agency oversees the state Medicaid program, and the Medicaid director is a board member of the Health Connector, the quasi-state agency that runs Massachusetts’ health insurance exchange. Problems with the exchange’s website have thwarted thousands from signing up for coverage.

“He has not been out in front for any of these issues both from a defensive position, but also from a proactive position,” Archambault said.

Polanowicz is smart, Archambault said, but has failed to offer a “grand vision” for his secretariat, likely in part because he has spent much of his time battling one crisis after another.

But Polanowicz said his mission, stepping in with just two years left in Governor Deval Patrick’s term, has been to finish the policy work laid out by his predecessor during the prior six years.

“Having been a CEO of a couple of different hospitals, I know there is an ebb and flow,” he said. “Sometimes you are Mr. Fix-It, and sometimes you are there to put out fires.”

A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Stanford University, Polanowicz receives a salary of $159,135. He is, according to his Twitter account, an “erstwhile golfer,” a fan of Boston College and Army sports teams, and the owner of a Harley Fat Bob motorcycle.

The lanky Northborough resident is known for grabbing every opportunity he can to visit his daughter who is studying at BC, and his son, who attends West Point. But there has not been a lot of free time since joining the administration.

In his first week, he was greeted by a critical report from state Inspector General Glenn Cunha’s office, which found the state may have been paying up to $25 million in welfare benefits to thousands of ineligible people.

Daniel J. Curley, the Department of Transitional Assistance commissioner, was forced to resign, and Polanowicz immediately named a new welfare chief. By March, the agency released a “100-Day Action Plan,” aimed at tightening security, improving services, and restoring public confidence, actions Polanowicz said are among his most satisfying since taking office.

Representative Thomas P. Conroy, who has for years pushed legislation aimed at halting welfare fraud and boosting job training for beneficiaries, said Polanowicz’s actions helped restore lawmakers’ confidence in the welfare system. That confidence, he said, was apparent this week as the Legislature debated the welfare agency’s budget.

“We did not have a single contentious discussion for the first time in four years here in the House on budget week, and that is largely attributed to John and [welfare commissioner] Stacey Monahan,” said Conroy, a Wayland Democrat.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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