Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

EDITORIAL>> State laboratory is decertified

Arkansans have become accustomed the past five years to stories about bungling and inefficiencies in its public health services. Gov. Huckabeeís solution was finally to ask the legislature this winter to move the big Health Department under the control of the even bigger Department of Human Services, and the legislature obliged. The transfer will happen July 1.

Still it was a mild shock to hear that the stateís public health laboratory is losing its federal certification because screw-ups in the lab rendered its results unreliable. The lab had used equipment from an outside laboratory to test a specimen and then claimed the work as its own, although federal law specifically prohibits it. Super-visors had signed a statement that the state had used its own equipment. The lab also never implemented other quality-control steps to ensure the reliability of its testing.

In the past 15 months, 61 of the 175,000 public and private laboratories in the United States lost their federal certifications, but this is the first instance of a state public health department losing its certification. The state laboratory does about 800,000 tests annually. So starting Sept. 1, or sooner if it does not make some changes, the laboratory will be barred from blood typing and performing many other tests for disorders.

Patients and beneficiaries may not feel the result of the decertification because specimens will be sent to other certified labs, but that is no reason to be philosophical about the failure of the public laboratory and the disuse of its $9.8 million budget.

There was already enough tragedy in the Health Departmentís annals. Dr. Fay Boozman, a gentle, caring and altogether good-hearted man with absolutely no aptitude for directing a big department with thousands of employees and many programs, had been fighting the demons of bureaucracy and of his own failings since almost the day Huckabee appointed him.

At that time we remembered his famous dictum when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1998 that a woman who was raped need not worry about getting pregnant because her body would secrete antibodies that would prevent pregnancy by her attacker. He would admit later that he might not have any scientific basis for that notion, and we wondered if he was professionally suited to run a sprawling agency of health professionals.

Soon after the governor gently proposed putting the director of another department over Dr. Boozman in the name of efficiency, a wall of his barn fell on him and killed him. The merger of the two departments will occur nonetheless.

A spokesman for the Department of Human Services said the director would apply for recertification of the laboratory as soon as the merger occurs. We hope that works and that the other manifold problems of the Health Department can be resolved.

But we also recall that DHS, as itís commonly known, has had more run-ins with federal watchdog agencies for its inefficiencies and failures than has Health.

So we are not optimistic. We are hopeful.