The old Florida capitol (Pic by Diligent Terrier, via Wikimedia Commons)

With very little debate and a 31-9 vote, the Florida Senate passed a bill today that critics have warned would severely weaken Florida’s Department of Health.

Public health professionals have denounced the bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, and state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, as it has made its way through both chambers. Advocates and public health professionals have called the legislation a “perilous and costly voyage” that 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.

Critics have said that the bill would make “unnecessary changes to the structure of the [DOH],” which could have a “demoralizing effect on employees” in both local and state-level branches of the department.

Democratic state Sens. Nan Rich and Maria Sachs were the only members to speak out against the bill and were among the only nine senators to vote against it.

Rich, D-Sunrise, said the bill would “reduce the mission of the health department” and that legislators “might be sorry later,” if the bill becomes law.

Rich raised the concerns of many public health advocates during this morning’s debate, arguing that the bill greatly diminished the “preventative care and rule making” authority of the health department.

She also expressed concerns that the bill would “[take] away the transparency in the health department.”

“I think we should think about that,” Rich said.

As I reported late last month, House Bill 1263 and Senate Bill 1824 were described by their sponsors as a way of “streamlining” and “focusing” the work done by the DOH. Hudson claimed he was working with the DOH to remove “duplicative services” and unnecessary or unfunded programs throughout the department. He dismissed any claims made during committee meetings that it would make harmful changes to the DOH.

Public health advocates that have testified against the bill, however, have consistently warned that it could change the language regarding the role of Florida’s Surgeon General, as well as delete important statutes.

Christopher Nuland, the legal and legislative consultant for the Florida Public Health Association, said the bill ”removes public health promotion… as a function from the Department of Health.”

“We need a unified public health system in order to address the threats that will affect the state of Florida,” Nuland warned.

Richard Polangin, Florida PIRG’s Healthcare Policy Coordinator, told committee members last month that the bill, as it was written, removes “very important preventative health care language from current law” and would repeal a number of preventative health programs. Polangin explained that there is no reason to remove some health programs from DOH-related statutes.

“There is no harm in keeping these programs in statutes regardless of funding,” he said. He said that many programs receive money from the federal government and simply require that the DOH act as an intermediary. According to Polangin, these programs are just “tools in the department’s toolkit” for accessing and preserving public health in the state.

One of the most contentious aspects of the bill, however, remains the proposed closure of A.G. Holley Hospital. Advocates have warned 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.

In defense of closing the hospital, Hudson has said it treats an average of 29 patients at any given time, and is costing the state a lot of money. He said the Legislature has been trying to “deal with the issue of A.G. Holley” for years.

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.

The bill will now move to Gov. Scott’s office, to await his signature.

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