Department of Health revamp moves forward

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A Senate committee Thursday approved a wide-ranging plan that would scale back the role of the Florida Department of Health, close the state’s tuberculosis hospital and block mandatory septic-tank inspections, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The plan, however, stops short of a House bill that calls for transferring public health responsibilities — and thousands of jobs — from the department to counties.

Senate Health Regulation Chairman Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version, said the controversial House proposal is “worth exploring.” He said he and House sponsor Matt Hudson, R-Naples, are trying to reach a compromise on the issue.

Both bills are part of a three-year effort by lawmakers to more narrowly focus the Department of Health. The Senate bill (SB 1824) calls for revamping the missions of the state surgeon general and the department, reducing the emphasis on issues such as preventive care.

For instance, the bill would eliminate part of state law that directs the surgeon general to “serve as the leading voice on wellness and disease prevention efforts, including the promotion of healthful lifestyles, immunization practices (and) health literacy.”

Similarly, it would eliminate part of state law that says the mission of the public-health system is to “foster the conditions in which people can be healthy, by assessing state and community health needs and priorities through data collection, epidemiological studies and community participation (and) by developing comprehensive public health policies and objectives aimed at improving the health status of people in the state.”

Garcia said he thinks the department needs to focus on core issues such as pandemics, disease outbreaks, communicable diseases and environmental health. He said the department’s mission is to protect the health and well being of Floridians.

But public-health advocates have long argued that the department should be involved in preventive programs. Chris Nuland, a lobbyist for the Florida Public Health Association, said the Senate bill is less “draconian” than the House version but that his group still has a fundamental disagreement about the approach.

“The bill makes no improvements in public health,” Richard Polangin, health care coordinator for the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said in a prepared statement. “Although the Senate bill is not as bad as the House bill, the Legislature should not pass either bill because both weaken public health.”

Department spokeswoman Ryan Wiggins said the DOH supports the Senate bill over the House version because it more closely reflects a reorganization plan that the agency released last year.

The 106-page Senate bill, which was unanimously approved by the Health Regulation Committee, would delve into numerous parts of the department, eliminating some programs and reducing administrative divisions. A Senate staff analysis said the financial impact of the changes has not been determined.

One of the most-visible changes calls for shutting down the A.G. Holley state tuberculosis hospital in Palm Beach County, a long-discussed idea that also is included in the House bill. Hospital critics argue that the facility serves relatively few patients, who could be treated at non-state hospitals elsewhere.

The Senate bill calls for the department to develop a plan to contract for treatment of tuberculosis patients at other facilities. The change would take effect Jan. 1.

On another high-profile issue, the bill would repeal a statewide septic-tank inspection program that lawmakers approved in 2010. The Department of Health administers the program, which has not taken effect and is highly controversial in rural areas.

Other parts of the Senate bill, however, would affect programs that are not as visible to the public. For example, it would eliminate the Florida Center for Universal Research to Eradicate Disease (FLCURED), a program that former Senate President Jim King helped create to coordinate biomedical research in the state.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.