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Dr. Nirav Shah, state health commissioner, resigns

Dr. Nirav Shah, commissioner of the New York

Dr. Nirav Shah, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on health and Medicaid on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, in Albany. (Credit: AP)

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's health commissioner, the focus of criticism after three years of indecision over whether to authorize natural gas drilling, is resigning.

The resignation of Dr. Nirav Shah, health commissioner since 2011, also follows the release of documents showing the Health Department failed to inspect some abortion clinics for years. The documents stemmed from a lawsuit by a conservative think tank that first was reported by the New York Post.

Cuomo blamed Shah's departure on the state salary structure. Shah makes $136,000 a year.

"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," Cuomo told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle's editorial board Thursday. "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."

Cuomo denied that Shah resigned because of the pressure to recommend whether the state should approve hydrofracking for natural gas in the upstate Marcellus Shale deposit. Cuomo has said repeatedly he is awaiting Shah's recommendation before deciding the politically divisive issue.

Shah, who announced his resignation Thursday, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. He has accepted a job as senior vice president and chief operating officer for clinical operations for the southern California region of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.

Polls have long shown New Yorkers divided over the fracking issue and environmentalists who oppose it are part of Cuomo's base of supporters.

In March 2013, after months of public pressure, Shah told reporters at a Cuomo news conference that his decision on the issue was weeks away.

Environmental groups cite studies that contend hydrofracking is a threat to public health. The process injects chemicals deep into shale deposits to extract gas.

Business groups say drilling will bring a long needed economic boost to the Southern Tier and Central New York. They cite other studies and urging by Democratic President Barack Obama as evidence that the process is safe and done in more than two dozen states.

On Wednesday, Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino called for Shah's resignation because he has been doing the "bidding" of Cuomo and for failing to regularly inspect abortion clinics. Astorino contends Cuomo wants to delay the fracking decision until after the fall election.

"I think if Dr. Shah had been allowed just follow science and medicine, we'd be exploring for natural gas already and the economy would be turning around a lot quicker," Astorino said.

The health commissioner's job will be taken over on an interim basis by the first deputy, Howard Zimmer, until a replacement is chosen, officials said.

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