House committee approves Health Department bill

Published 5:29 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A proposal to oust the leadership of the state Health Department passed through a House committee Tuesday, but several key points in the bill could mean more legislative wrangling.

The Senate drafted the bill earlier this month in response to allegations the Health Department’s current leadership failed to protect Mississippians from diseases.

The House Public Health Committee on Tuesday passed a revised version of the proposal, adding substantial changes to the original legislation approved by the Senate on Feb. 6.

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Both versions of the bill would allow the Board of Health and the position held by state Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy to “sunset” on June 30.

State agencies typically are “sunset” every few years. Lawmakers usually rubber-stamp the agencies’ continued existence, but the provisions give legislators a chance to review agencies when there have been complaints about performance.

Amy has been under fire for months over alleged shortcomings in his leadership since 2002, including claims that the agency failed to inform Mississippians about suspected outbreaks of West Nile virus.

The most substantial difference in the House and Senate versions of the bill is who gets to hire and fire the state health officer.

The Senate version would allow the governor to chose the health officer from a list of candidates submitted by the Board of Health. The House version would allow the board to choose.

“We think power broadly dispersed is the best use of power,” said House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. “We feel like the governor is going to have the bulk of the appointments on the board so that the governor can excerpt his or her influence there.”

Holland’s counterpart in the Senate, Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, has said the health officer should be an executive-level appointee, which he claims would provide accountability in the position.

“It appears to me that the House and the Senate are in about 90 percent agreement,” Nunnelee said. “We both acknowledge that there are serious problems within the Department of Health and that’s a big step.”

During the House committee debate, Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, suggested amending the bill to allow the board to continue to exist, claiming the only thing the board did wrong was cross paths with Nunnelee.

Nunnelee and others have been critical of the board for being unable or unwilling to remove Amy from his post.

When that amendment failed, Franks and others pushed language into the bill that would require the board members and health officer to report threats or intimidation to the state attorney general.

“These board members were asked to do something, but they refused to do it. Now they’re paying for it,” Franks said. “Something needs to be put on this language to keep this from happening again.”

Nunnelee said every action he’s taken has “been under complete public scrutiny.”

“If the board member or agency head feels intimidated because a legislator’s asking questions, they’ll just have to feel intimidated,” Nunnelee said.

Nunnelee’s committee held a series of public hearings over the past several months to explore allegations that the Health Department was mired in problems. When some members of the board in early February appeared poised to vote on Amy’s future, they were met with a court injunction that blocked the board from firing him that day. Amy has said he’ll sue the board and members individually if they remove him from his post without “cause.”

The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee, then to the full House for a vote. If the House approves the revised version, it would go back to the Senate for consideration. If the Senators don’t approve of the changes, they will try to resolve the details in conference with members of the House.

The bill is Senate Bill 2764.