Public health experts warn Scott against signing health department reorganization

By | 03.23.12 | 4:23 pm

Gov. Rick Scott (Pic via flgov.com)

The Florida Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), along with Florida’s public health associations and a coalition of distinguished public health leaders, have sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking him to oppose legislation that seeks to reorganize the state’s Department of Health (DOH), warning that it would be “very detrimental to public health.”

The bill in question passed through the Florida Legislature earlier this month and is now on its way to Scott’s desk. Critics warn that the bill, which was sponsored by state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, and State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, could undermine the role of the state’s Surgeon General, as well as a slew of health programs currently carried out by the state health department and local health departments.

As the bill made its way through committees, public health advocates and professionals warned that it would be a ”perilous and costly voyage,” if signed into law.

This week, many of the same people sounding the alarm sent a letter to Scott urging him to veto the bill once it is laid on his desk.

The letter tells Scott that:

This legislation weakens DOH’s ability to protect public health, a core responsibility of government. The legislation does not make public health programs at the Department of Health more cost efficient or more effective, nor will it improve the health of Floridians. A healthy workforce and citizenry are essential for Florida to have a healthy business and growth climate. Unfortunately, nothing in this legislation strengthens public health.

Among the many concerns the group raises is the bill’s closure of A.G. Holley State Hospital. Advocates warned during the bill’s passage that the closure of the hospital would remove specialized care for very severe tuberculosis patients that have gone to A.G. Holley as a last stop for treatment. The letter urges Scott to not shut down A.G. Holley in order to “protect public health from the spread of tuberculosis.”

“It is imperative that DOH be able to place patients in an appropriate hospital with certainty of confinement and treatment,” the letter warns.

The bill also drew concerns from public health professionals because it would repeal “all sections of Florida law that direct DOH to promote healthy lifestyles to prevent disease, premature deaths and disability.” Experts warned that these statutes are “tools in the department’s toolkit” for accessing and preserving public health in the state during the bill’s committee stops.

The advocates in the letter also expressed concern over the bill’s elimination of the Division of Environmental Health.

“This division has a long-standing reputation for professional excellence,” the letter warns. “Programs that regulate septic tanks, drinking water from private wells, protect the public from radiation hazards, and address illnesses spread from animals to humans like the West Nile Virus and rabies would be moved to other divisions, principally a new Division of Emergency Preparedness and Community Support.”

During public testimony of the bill, Richard Polangin (who was speaking on behalf of Florida PIRG), explained that the bill would maintain the services, but disperse them to agencies all over the state. ”There is a reason for these programs to be located together,” he explained earlier this month.

He also told legislators that “Florida is an environmentally sensitive state” that requires an agency that monitors environmental health exclusively.

According to the letter, the bill also greatly undermines women’s health and minority health.

According to the letter:

The bill eliminates section 381.04015, F.S., which creates the Office of Women’s Health Strategies for the purpose of promoting women’s health through recognition of the distinct differences in women’s health from men’s health. This section provides a framework for future strategies on women’s health issues including practice standards, treatment patterns and research needs. While it was enacted in 2004, but never funded, elimination of the statute appears to de-emphasize women’s health needs and concerns at a time when women’s health issues are under attack from many fronts. It eliminates any future initiatives under the act should federal, state or private funding become available.

The bill eliminates sections 381.1001, 381.1015, 381.1012, and 381.103, F.S., which create the Florida Community Health Protection Act which was enacted to ensure the availability of public health services to members of low-income communities that may be adversely affected by contaminated sites located in or near the community. It was enacted because of the state’s commitment to the economic, environmental, and public health revitalization of its communities through measures to address the public health needs of low-income communities in urban and rural areas in order to ensure the sustainability of these communities. Most of these communities are populated by racial and ethnic minorities. While it was enacted in 1999 but never funded, elimination of this statute appears to be a retreat from the state’s previous commitment to these groups and their communities while eliminating any hope of future initiatives under the act should federal, state or private funding become available.

The bill also repeals the authority for the State Surgeon General to appoint an advisory committee to advise DOH on ways to reduce health disparities among minority groups.

The DOH, as it stands today, was created by a Republican state lawmaker and former medical doctor. Public health advocates have long considered the Department of Health as one of the greatest achievements of Dr. William G. “Doc” Myers.

The state’s Department of Health has already been subject to severe budget cuts in recent years. Last year, the state and local health departments suffered significant layoffs and reductions in services, due to the state’s budget cuts.

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