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Surgeon Gen. Farmer resigns, cites wife’s illness

Dr. Frank Farmer, a former military officer who led a massive, rapid-fire overhaul at the Florida Department of Health, has resigned effective Monday, March 9.

Farmer said he needs to go home to Ormond Beach to be with his wife Peggy, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The diagnosis came before Christmas and she has already been through surgery and radiation, Farmer said in his resignation letter to Gov. Rick Scott, dated Friday but released today.

Farmer wrote that they both "felt that I had to continue through the legislative session," which is scheduled to end Friday. "We are both confident that she will have a complete recovery and cure but it is time for me to retire and support her and our family through this time," he wrote.

An internist and retired military officer with a Ph.D. in history, Farmer was able to ram through many long-overdue changes in medical discipline because of his accomplishments as a former president of the Florida Medical Association and former chairman of the state Board of Medicine.

Current board members say Farmer accomplished an amazing amount in just 11 months at the helm. "I'll miss him. Everyone will," said Dr. George Thomas.

When he assumed the job of secretary at DOH, Farmer found it was taking the department's investigative and legal staff an average of 120 days -- four months -- to issue an "emergency" restriction or suspension of a dangerous practitioner's license. He set a goal of cutting that to 19 days, and did.

He said it was no longer acceptable for DOH to let cases die by letting them drag out past the six-year statute of limitations, and through staff changes and a new priority system, got the backlog cleared out.

Farmer also improved the department's flow of information to the public through an updated consumer website and newsroom listing recent emergency actions. And there were many of those -- over 300 related to prescription drug abuse alone.

The key to curbing illicit pain clinics lay in outreach to law enforcement agencies so that DOH could be kept in the loop on investigations. Once he recognized that was the problem, Farmer created liaisons with the local, state and federal agencies to foster better relations.

The result, he wrote in his letter to Scott, is "that they now trust us and know we are serious about removing the licenses of those who participate in illegal activities."

This afternoon, FMA President Miguel Machado released a statement calling Farmer "a tireless advocate for Florida’s patients and the physicians who provide their care" and said Florida is "losing one of its most courageous and steadfast public servants."

 It was not immediately clear who would act in Farmer's stead following his departure. DOH officials forwarded the question to the governor's office, where spokesman Lane Wright said officials are still evaluating who will stand in for Farmer.

He released this statement from Gov. Scott: "Dr. Frank Farmer’s resignation was an unfortunate surprise for me this morning and I am sad to see him go. He has done an excellent job in his role as our surgeon general and has made significant contributions to the state of Florida, particularly in cracking down against pill mills.

“My thoughts and prayers go out for him and his wife Peggy as they continue to battle her cancer. I wish her a speedy recovery and all the best in their future endeavors

Richard Polangin, health coordinator for the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said he hoped Scott will appoint a "physician who is a qualified public health leader and familiar with DOH."

Consumer and public-health groups have criticized the Legislature in recent weeks for a Scott-directed DOH reorganization that they feel de-emphasizes prevention and classic public-health duties, such as environmental health inspections. 

Farmer and his deputies were able to derail some of the more aggressive legislative attacks on DOH this session, including one that would have turned over many DOH duties to counties.

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to public-service journalism. Editor Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.


Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.