Senators consider nominations, even as Board of Health might dissolve

Published 7:22 pm Friday, March 16, 2007

The entire state Board of Health probably will be dissolved in a few months, but senators are moving forward with the process of confirming nominees to the group.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the four nominees need to be confirmed to the 13-member board so they can keep serving after the Legislature leaves the Capitol in early April.

Nunnelee also said some of the members could be reappointed after the board is dissolved June 30 and reconstituted July 1.

Legislative negotiators are working on the final draft of a bill that would dissolve the Board of Health and push Dr. Brian Amy out of his job as state health officer. The move comes amid complaints about the way Amy has run the Department of Health the past couple of years.

On Thursday, four Board of Health members appeared before a Senate Public Health subcommittee and cleared the first step of the confirmation process. The nominations probably will be brought up in the full Public Health Committee and then in the full Senate the final week of March, which also is the last week of the three-month legislative session.

The four nominees have been serving without confirmation. That’s a normal process for this and other boards, where it could be months between the time the governor or another official nominates a person to a post and the time the Senate gets around to confirmation.

Dr. Luke Lampton of Magnolia became chairman of the Board of Health on Feb. 28, replacing an Amy supporter, Mary Kim Smith of Brandon. Since then, the board has told Amy to stop working on his own reorganization plan for the department.

Lampton told the Senate subcommittee on Thursday that the reorganization proposed by Amy would be “a prescription for chaos.” Lampton also said the board’s duty between now and July 1 “is to try to keep the department as stable as possible.”

“I think we need to do everything we can to focus on public health and not on personalities and politics of this issue,” Lampton said. “I believe the board is going to be focused on public health. Even though even the board may be sunsetting, we’ve got a job to do as long as we’re there.”

State agencies typically “sunset” or lose their authorization to exist, every few years. This gives lawmakers a chance to review policies and operations.

In the case of the Health Department now, it is giving lawmakers a chance to address complaints about Amy, which have ranged from his giving unauthorized raises to executives to the agency’s failure to warn the public about as many as two dozen suspected cases for West Nile virus. The board has been targeted for being unwilling or unable to remove Amy from his post.

Amy says he is under fire because of a personal vendetta held by Nunnelee that arose when Amy refused to give the senator information about a certificate of need for a hospital. Nunnelee denies the claim.

Nunnelee asked each of the board nominees Thursday: “Do you think I’m on a witch hunt?”

Each of the four nominees — Lampton, Kelly Scott Segars of Iuka, Sampat S. Shivangi of Jackson and Dr. Harvey Allen Gersh of Hattiesburg — said no.

“No, sir. I do not,” Segars said. “I’m proud of you.”

Under the restructuring legislation, Amy’s position and the board would be allowed to sunset on June 30, and be reconstituted with new leadership. The agency itself would remain unchanged.

Nunnelee said he might not have tried to dissolve the board if the group had earlier shown more willingness to fire Amy.

“I have been most impressed with the leadership of Dr. Luke Lampton and this particular group of board members and the way they have stepped up over the last six weeks,” Nunnelee said.

The nominations are Senate Nominations 26, 45, 58 and 66. The bill is Senate Bill 2764.