Two top Alaska Public Health officials who have been directing the state's swine flu response have left state employment in an action that may be linked to Gov. Sarah Palin's anti-abortion views.
Alaska's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jay Butler, left the Department of Health and Social Services June 22. Public Health Division Director Bev Wooley's last day was Wednesday.
Wooley declined to comment, but told division staff her departure was "per Governor Palin's request" in an e-mail announcing her departure.
Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow denied the governor was involved in Wooley's departure and deferred further comment to Commissioner Bill Hogan of the Department of Health and Social Services, who declined to comment through a department spokeswoman.
Butler, however, was willing to speak. He said he was asked to do his job and Wooley's, but resigned instead. He took a position with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta directing swine flu response nationally. Butler called his departure "a combination of pushes and pulls, I wasn't necessarily looking for a new job."
While in turmoil in Alaska, Butler said he was given an opportunity to return to the CDC to continue his work on swine flu response nationwide.
"This is really the center of the flu universe right now," he said this week from Atlanta.
Butler said he suspects Wooley's departure may have been related to conflicts between Palin's anti-abortion views and state health staff's reluctance to present medical information they believed was inaccurate about a bill requiring parental consent for abortion.
"I know there was some concern about the parental consent for abortion issue, there was a lot of discussion about the role of Public Health in testifying to deliver the administration's statements," Butler said.
The parental consent bill stalled in the Legislature, with some members publicly questioning Palin's commitment to advancing the bill after Department of Health and Social Services staff failed to show up to testify in its favor.
Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, an abortion rights advocate in the Legislature, said she also believes Palin's attempt to get support for her anti-abortion views played a role in Wooley's departure.
Holmes said Wooley's view was "I can go so far as being neutral," but would not support a bill she thought could present a danger to minors seeking abortions.
Butler said he and other public health professionals believe parental consent legislation presents a risk to minors' safety. He said he conveyed that view to Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a Palin ally and sponsor of parental consent legislation.
"I said as a father of several teenage girls I hope they would feel comfortable talking with me in that situation, bit I did express a concern that in a minority of cases the bigger threat to a girl may be her parents," Butler said.
Coghill later amended his bill to require parental notification, rather than consent, but it stalled under Democratic opposition in the Senate.
The loss of two Public Health staffers comes as the abortion issue heats up in Alaska. Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman is sponsoring a ballot initiative requiring parental involvement when minors seek abortions. Palin has publicly backed the effort.
The petition has the requisite number of signatures, and the Department of Law is expected to complete its review of the ballot language next week.
Clover Simon, Planned Parenthood's vice-president for Alaska, said she was aware of Wooley's departure, but did not know why it happened.
"I know she's pretty well regarded in the health community," Simon said.
Simon said her organization is generally kept at arms length by the division because of its controversial nature.
Butler said Wooley's departure would be a loss to the state.
"Bev's dismissal was unfortunate," he said. "She was one of Public Health's best people, and certainly the hardest worker."
Contact reporter Pat Forgeyat 523-2250 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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