Health bill passes but goes to uncertain fate with Barbour

Published 12:24 am Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mississippi lawmakers say they’ve done their part to restructure the state Board of Health and oust Dr. Brian Amy from his job as state health officer, but it’s not clear whether a bill they passed Saturday will get the governor’s approval.

“The governor’s really going to have to assess this bill,” Pete Smith, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, said Saturday. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Some lawmakers were optimistic that the plan they sent Barbour is workable. It creates a new board and phases out Amy’s job.

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“I think we’re on the road to a full healthy recovery at the Board of Health,” House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, told his colleagues.

The House passed the bill 120-0. The 52-member Senate passed it with only one “no” vote from Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point.

The legislation comes after accusations that the department’s leadership was mired in bureaucracy and failed to warn Mississippians about diseases, and that board members voted on issues when they had conflicts of interest.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and others began to call for Amy’s dismissal after a series of hearings to explore allegations that the agency failed to warn the public about as many as two dozen suspected cases of West Nile virus.

When the board appeared unwilling to remove Amy over fears of being sued, lawmakers decided board members should be terminated, too.

The bill uses a “sunset clause” to remove Amy and the board. State agencies typically “sunset,” or go out of existence, every few years. Lawmakers usually rubber-stamp the agencies’ continued existence, but they decided not to do so in this case.

If Barbour signs the bill into law, the current 13-member Board of Health would go out of existence immediately and a new 11-member board would take its place. The health officer’s job would expire June 30, the last day of the current budget year. The agency itself would remain intact.

The governor would make most of the appointments to the new board. The other appointments would be made by the lieutenant governor and the attorney general.

Nunnelee said the House negotiators “wanted to make sure the current occupant of the Governor’s Mansion didn’t have all the appointments.” He also said some of the current board members could go back on the board, if that’s what the governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general want.

“I think we have some very good board members who merit reappointment,” Nunnelee said Saturday.

The House and Senate passed different versions of a Board of Health restructuring bill weeks ago. A half-dozen negotiators from the two chambers worked out the final version.

Among the items that disappeared in the final draft was a Senate plan to reduce Amy’s pay to $1 a year.

One of the new features that appeared is a provision to allow parents to request a birth certificate for a stillborn baby.

One of the biggest points of contention between House and Senate negotiators had been who would get to appoint the new health officer.

Nunnelee said repeatedly that Mississippi should follow the lead of most other states and make the health officer an executive-level position appointed by the governor. He relented to House members who said that would give the governor too much power over the agency responsible for the public health of Mississippians.

The bill would also create a Tobacco Control Advisory Board within the Health Department to focus on smoking cessation programs. The panel could to be funded with all or part of the $20 million a year that had been going to a private anti-smoking group, The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.

The $20 million is part of the annual payments the state receives from settling its landmark lawsuit with tobacco companies in the 1990s. The Partnership money is now tied up in court. Barbour says the money should go to the state, while the Partnership says it should continue to get the payments. The Mississippi Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in that case Monday.

The bill is Senate Bill 2764.