ALBANY – Just hours after the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate called for the ouster of Dr. Nirav Shah, a Buffalo native who heads the state’s Health Department, state officials began leaking word Wednesday night that he will resign in June to take a job in California.
Shah, already put in the spotlight the past couple of years by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as the supposed decision-maker over whether hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is safe from a health perspective, suddenly got into the crossfire of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign Wednesday when Republican Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino called for his removal from office.
Astorino was responding, in part, to documents obtained by a private organization that was the basis of a New York Post report this week that the state Health Department over the last decade has not inspected one-third of the 25 abortion clinics that it regulates. Astorino said the health of women served by the clinics could have been in jeopardy by failure to adequately monitor them.
Astorino also said Shah has been serving a political role for Cuomo on the “fracking” issue by doing the governor’s “bidding’’ on the matter; a state ban on fracking dates back to the Paterson administration and Astorino has said it appears clear that Cuomo is trying to punt on the controversial issue until after the November elections.
A state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Shah’s departure has been in the works for weeks, and that the health commissioner began informing people of his decision on Tuesday night. Astorino issued his call for Shah to leave at 10 a.m. Wednesday, though campaign officials let reporters know at 4:45 p.m. the day before that Astorino would be making a “significant’’ announcement on Wednesday.
Shah will become senior vice president and chief operating officer for the southern California region of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, said a state official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He will be replaced in New York State by his top deputy, Dr. Howard Zucker, who joined the administration last fall after stints in a number of major hospital posts, the official said.
In an editorial board meeting this morning with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Cuomo dismissed talk that Shah’s departure is any way linked to controversies surrounding the delays by his administration to decide whether to permit fracking or the abortion clinic inspection controversy.
Instead, Cuomo blamed the low pay he has to offer agency commissioners. “The salaries are a real problem in state government,” Cuomo said. “You know, you want one of the best health professionals in the country as the health commissioner. You don’t get that for $130,000. You just don’t. And then you tell the person ‘work seven days a week and you can’t have any other outside income,’ and people can only do it for a period of time.”