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Officials: Md. health lab improving after lead records tumult

In the three months since revelations of widespread records destruction at the state health department's lab, interim managers have made strides to improve its operation, Maryland's top health officials say.

The lab could see more changes, based on a new report into the destruction of blood test records for lead-poisoned children. The report, by Thomas V. Russell, inspector general at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, contains recommendations that include a call for better tracking of document requests.

The tumult surrounding the records destruction has been "traumatic" for the lab, according to state Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein, even though computer technicians have succeeded in recovering the key data contained in electronic records that had been deleted.

But Sharfstein and Frances B. Phillips, deputy secretary for public health services, insist that the lab has improved under the interim management of Robert A. Myers, who previously worked as a deputy director at the lab. A search is under way for a new director.

"It's pretty remarkable what they have been able to achieve with existing resources," Phillips said Friday after Russell's report was made public.

Phillips pointed to two areas of improvement. She said the staff has been able to "catch up on a backlog of records requests, as well as to dramatically improve turnaround for some of the bookkeeping and paperwork associated with newborn screening."

Sharfstein said, "There has been a lot of progress in some areas without having to do anything drastic in the last couple months."

Russell's investigation found that the lab's former director, Dr. John DeBoy, and a deputy, Michael J. Wajda, were wrong to orchestrate the widespread destruction of blood test records for lead-poisoned children, given that they knew the documents were being sought by the children's attorneys through court subpoenas or public information requests.

The report portrays the state lab as a place whose supervisors felt overwhelmed, understaffed and resentful about having to pull records for plaintiffs' lawyers who use the blood test results to sue landlords over lead poisoning. Reams of paper records were shredded, and electronic versions of the data were deleted, altogether affecting documents spanning 1985 to 2003.

DeBoy and Wajda have denied knowing that any records were destroyed while subject to an outside request. Both were placed on administrative leave in March and have since retired. Russell said he will refer the case to the criminal division of the attorney general's office, as required by a standing executive order.

Russell's report says the lab may need more staff, and it recommends several changes at the lab. Those include suggestions to:

•Automate, simplify and update the process for retrieving blood lead records to ensure both timely responses to requests for records and "the overall integrity" of the system.

•Develop an electronic method to log and then track the requests for lead testing.

•Separate duties involved in processing the blood lead test records from duties to respond to requests for such data;

•Consider relocating this process to the state Department of the Environment, which the report notes receives the same testing results as the state lab and could respond to records requests.