Dept. of Health re-organization gets go-ahead

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The House and Senate on Friday approved an overhaul of the Florida Department of Health that includes closing the state’s tuberculosis hospital and repealing a controversial septic-tank inspection program, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The bill, which now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, is part of a three-year effort by House leaders to make the department more focused. It rewrites the department’s mission and the role of the state surgeon general, while calling for parts of the agency to become more efficient.

Some public-health advocates have objected to the bill (HB 1263), particularly because of concerns it could lead to scaling back preventive health care.

“I think we are jeopardizing some very important public-health areas that … we might be sorry about later,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.

But Senate sponsor Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, tried to ease the concerns.

“This bill does nothing to limit the scope of the Department of Health,” he said.

The Senate voted 31-9 to approve the bill, and the House followed later with an 86-29 vote. Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the department, issued a statement saying the agency was pleased with the bill.

“The final version of the bill, as passed by the Legislature today, will allow the department to continue its efforts to become more streamlined and efficient,” Wiggins said..

Much of the 155-page bill deals with the inner workings of the department, such as calling for improvements in the Division of Medical Quality Assurance, which oversees licensing and regulation of health professionals. The bill, in part, requires a plan for the division to reduce licensure time by one-third.

Lawmakers focused Friday on parts of the bill that would close the A.G. Holley tuberculosis hospital in Palm Beach County and repeal a 2010 law that required septic-tank inspections across the state.

The bill will lead to the department contracting with a program that would treat tuberculosis patients at other hospitals and health-care facilities. The changes would have to take effect by Jan. 1.

State officials have long discussed closing A.G. Holley, but public-health advocates and some lawmakers object to the idea. Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, pointed to the complicated medical conditions involved with tuberculosis patients and said they have “no place else to go.”

But House sponsor Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican who is a key architect of the department reorganization, has repeatedly said that Florida is one of only a few states with a tuberculosis hospital. Also, he and other supporters say A.G. Holley treats relatively few patients on a sprawling campus.

The septic-tank inspection issue, meanwhile, has been controversial in areas such as Northwest Florida. The 2010 law was designed, at least in part, to help limit septic-tank discharges that could taint the state’s springs.

But opponents argue the law could lead to increased expenses for homeowners with septic tanks. The bill passed Friday calls for city or county officials to develop inspection programs if their areas include what are known as “first magnitude” springs — but it also allows those local governments to choose not to have the programs.

The House passed a repeal bill last month. But with the legislative session ending Friday night, lawmakers added the issue to the Department of Health reorganization to ensure passage.

Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, described the move as a “very big deal in Northwest Florida.”

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.