State Public Health Department director resigns

DES MOINES – The director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, who was recently criticized for comments she made about food stamps, has resigned, Gov. Terry Branstad announced Thursday.

The governor thanked Mariannette Miller-Meeks for her service and gave no reason for her departure. His spokesman, Jimmy Centers, said the governor had not sought the resignation and that it was unrelated to her recent remarks.

Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa ophthalmologist and Republican who twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Iowa, has been criticized for inaccurately saying that Mountain Dew was the top item purchased with food stamps in Iowa. The comments, made during an October event, were highlighted in a Lee newspaper story.

A health department spokeswoman later said Miller-Meeks “regrets that she miscommunicated the information.”

Miller-Meeks has served as director of the state agency since Branstad took office in 2011. She said Thursday that she was not leaving because of the comments but rather to seek new opportunities, including a potential third run for Congress.

“In order to able to explore what’s the best course for me and my family, it was best I resign to make that determination for me and my family,” Miller-Meeks said.

Miller-Meeks said her Mountain Dew remark came as she was making comments about how improve nutrition for those on public assistance. She acknowledged that the state does not specifically track food stamp purchase information.

In a news release announcing her departure, Branstad said Miller-Meeks had served with “great passion.”

“Mariannette has been a champion of health in Iowa, including working to promote our Healthiest State Initiative,” Branstad said.

Branstad named the agency’s deputy director, Gerd Clabaugh, as its interim director.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan criticized Miller-Meeks on Thursday, saying her resignation was “past due.”

“She has used the office of public health for a political agenda only Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party could love – demonizing working families in need with blatantly false information about Iowans, trafficked on the Internet by a radical Tea Party fringe,” Brennan said in a news release.