Bill to revamp Health Department survives deadline

Published 9:54 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2007

State Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy won’t be fired immediately under a bill headed to the Senate for debate, but that doesn’t mean he’s got job security.

A bill that would restructure the state Board of Health cleared two Senate committees on Tuesday, but was stripped of language that would have removed Amy from his post as head of the state Department of Health.

However, a provision to fire the entire Board of Health and create a new one remained intact in the proposal.

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Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said that means Amy’s days are numbered.

“I don’t think there’s any chance the state health officer would stay on under a new board,” Nunnelee said.

A proposal drafted by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee would have removed Amy and the entire board from their posts; the changes would have happened when the bill was signed into law.

However, several changes were made by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, before his committee debated the proposal.

The revisions sparked a passionate debate in the Senate Public Health Committee, with some lawmakers claiming the Appropriations Committee used deadline pressure to push through last minute changes.

The bill was one of several being debated Tuesday as lawmakers faced their first deadline of the 2007 session. It was the final day for House committees to act on general bills filed in the House and for Senate committees to act on general bills filed in the Senate.

The bills that survive Tuesday’s deadline move on for more debate in the full House or Senate, and the two chambers will exchange bills for further debate later.

Gordon’s version of the Health Department bill removed language that would have fired Amy and given the governor the power to hire and fire state health officers in the future. It would also add two members to a restructured board, which would hire the health officer.

Amy was clearly the target of the initial legislation, which was drafted by the Public Health Committee after a series of hearings over the past several months to explore allegations that the Health Department was bogged down in bureaucracy and mired in problems.

Testimony revealed the agency failed to warn the public about disease outbreaks, including two dozen cases of West Nile virus. Some lawmakers also say Board of Health members had unchecked influence on health regulations that pertain to the businesses they run.

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, who is a member of both the Public Health and Appropriations committees, decried the changes in the proposal to oust Amy, saying the Appropriations Committee took the bill “hostage.”

“This is not right,” Jackson said. “It’s very offensive to me that we as a committee did all this work and someone changes what we did on deadline day, because it’s deadline day.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a member of the Public Health Committee, agreed with the changes that were made by Appropriations, but was visibly angered by the way the revisions were pushed through by Gordon.

“This sort of stuff has gone on with the Appropriations Committee for years and years and the time has come to stop,” Bryan said. “This is a body of 52 people. It is not a fiefdom for any one person.”

The Public Health Committee approved the revised bill, because if changes were made it would have gone back to the Appropriations Committee, and there was no guarantee it would get to the full Senate, Nunnelee said.

The bill would create a new nine-member Board of Health, with four appointed by the governor and three appointed by the lieutenant governor. The two other members would be the vice chancellor for Health Affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

It would also create a five-member executive committee to consider certificates of need — or CONS. States control the building of hospitals and other major health care facilities through the issuance of CONs in order to control costs, avoid duplication of services and protect existing health care providers from competition.