Miss. health officer threatens to sue if fired

Published 4:22 pm Friday, February 2, 2007

The state Board of Health is scheduled to meet today to discuss health officer Brian Amy’s future with the Department of Health. It is unclear what will happen today now that Amy has threatened to sue board members who vote to fire him.

At least seven board members received letters sent out by attorney Sam Begley of Jackson, according to published reports Thursday in the Enterprise-Journal in McComb and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.

In the Jan. 31 letter, Begley said that if the board takes any action against Amy, he “will immediately initiate legal action against you for an injunction and damages.”

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Past discussions of Amy’s performance have been held in closed meetings. Under Mississippi law, public boards can close meetings to discuss personnel issues.

Amy has been widely criticized for problems in the Mississippi Department of Health, which employs 2,000 people statewide. In December, the board voted in a split decision to allow Amy to keep his post.

Amy has been the state health officer since 2002 and his annual salary is $213,315.

Over the past several months allegations have surfaced that the Health Department is mired in problems, including the agency’s failure to warn the public about disease outbreaks.

Begley called the board’s planned meeting a “witch hunt” and said the board had been “infected by outside political interference” from Senate Public Health and Welfare Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who has proposed a bill firing Amy and reconstituting the state board.

Board member Luke Lampton, a Magnolia physician, told the Enterprise-Journal that he made the motion in December to terminate Amy, but the motion failed in a split vote. Twelve of the 13 board members were present.

Southwest Health Systems CEO Norman Price, another board member, said he was among those who ultimately voted not to terminate Amy, but he said he did so after considering many factors.

“My reasoning was this: Until there was a replacement, I didn’t think it was a correct thing to do, in light of the fact that we were coming into the flu season and had seen some spot tuberculosis outbreaks,” Price said.

Price also said there was no replacement available for Amy.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m supporting him. Part of the state health officer’s key responsibility is to insure the agency’s relationship with the state Legislature. That obviously has not been accomplished. Really, at this point, I don’t see how he can continue without a relationship with the Legislature,” Price said.

Lampton said the board in December asked Amy to leave his post voluntarily and asked him how the board could help him step down.

“But he absolutely was not going to step down,” Lampton said. “After that, the discussion came to be termination.”

Lampton said there was some discussion in December about the board’s potential to be drawn into an extended lawsuit if members voted to fire Amy, and the board’s legal counsel did not give them much assurance.

“Lawyers for the board did not diffuse the fear of lawsuits among some members,” Lampton said. “The problem that occurred was attorneys did not state there is significant immunity for members on the board … acting under those circumstances. Afterwards we got a legal opinion stating there was significant immunity if we chose to fire him. The attorney general’s office would be our defense.

“My feeling is that if you’re on the Board of Health you need to do your job. You’ve got an obligation to the state without concern about being sued,” Lampton said.

Lampton said it’s time for Amy to leave the post and there would be adequate interim leadership at the state office.

“If the state health officer is dismissed, we will report an interim state health officer, and that would probably be one of the acting district health officers in the department.”

Neither Price nor Lampton was on the board when Amy was hired.