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Senator wants changes at State Department of Health

JACKSON — State Sen. Alan Nunnelee is on a mission to reform the Mississippi State Department of Health and its board of directors. The Tupelo Republican believes this is the year to make critical changes to the agency and its governing board.

The State Department of Health is scheduled for sunset June 30 of this year. Nunnelee points out there’s nothing unusual about that as it happens to all of the state’s departments. Various legislative committees deal with the different agencies.

“There are two out of bounds markers when agencies sunset,” he said. “We can let them expire or we can change the sunset date with no changes and extend the agency, thus rubber stamping the status quo, which is what the House of Representatives did for the Department of Health.”

When it’s time for an agency to sunset, that’s an opportune time to take a closer look at how the governmental entity is conducting the people’s business and spending the people’s money, Nunnelee believes. He has served on the Senate’s Public Health and Welfare Committee since he was elected in 1995 to fill the unexpired term of Roger Wicker when Wicker was elected to the U.S. Congress. In January 2004, Nunnelee became chairman of the committee.

“I have always been on this committee. The area I represent has a great interest in public health,” he said of Lee and Pontotoc counties. “This department is too important to let it expire but has too many problems to rubber stamp it.”

He became aware of problems at the department in the fall of 2005 when the legislative watchdog Performance Expenditure Evaluation Review (PEER) Committee issued a critical report. The PEER report noted the department’s constant state of flux, issues with restaurant inspections and a problem with under-reporting West Nile virus cases.

“We postponed dealing with it until this year because we were dealing with so many issues from Hurricane Katrina last year,” the senator said. “My goal was to look at it carefully this year.”

Nunnelee is concerned that frequent changes within the Department of Health keep employees confused. “Before changes can be fully implemented, new changes are started and the people on the ground are not informed,” he said. “Two glaring examples were telling employees in the field not to fail any restaurant unless it goes through the central office and under-reporting West Nile virus.

“We live in the South and proper precautions are important. More accurate reporting would allow cities to step up preventative measures and allow doctors to better treat the illness.”

He feels the problems are driven by mismanagement and was not satisfied with meetings with department officials. “When we asked high-level officials serious questions, they responded with canned answers,” he said. “I wanted to replace the state health officer and the committee gave a unanimous vote of no confidence.”

Senate Bill 2764 has strong language about conflicts of interest for members of the State Board of Health and would reduce the 13-member board to seven with four appointed by the governor and three by the lieutenant governor.

Currently, all 13 members are appointed by the governor.
The proposed law also moves the state health officer to a cabinet-level position appointed by the governor. According to Nunnelee, only four states have this position appointed by a board. Other changes involve the certificate of need process, moving the authority from the state health officer to the board of health.

“This plan leads to a good and important question: why do we need a board?” Nunnelee said. “The board adds details to statutes and it’s a good idea to have those done by a board.”

Requests by the Mississippi Business Journal for an interview with Dr. Brian W. Amy, the current state health officer, were refused. Communications director Liz Sharlot referred the request to board chairman Mary Kim Smith.

“We take our directions from the board and alert them about any legislation,” Sharlot said. “They haven’t met during this legislative session.”

At press time for this issue of the MBJ, attempts to contact Smith had been unsuccessful.

Nunnelee says Amy is qualified on paper for the position. Requirements state that the health officer must be a medical doctor and have a degree in public health or general experience in public health. Amy holds numerous degrees and board certifications, along with post-graduate training, academic appointments and membership in professional societies.

“He’s not the only problem,” Nunnelee said. “He’s appointed by the board and some members are very good and some are motivated by personal gain. That’s why we have strong language in the bill about conflict of interest.”

The bill has 30 authors, which indicates broad support. “The bill has tremendous support in the senate from Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, North, South,” he said. “It cuts across all sectors any way you slice it.”

If the bill passes both houses of the Legislature, it will go into effect the moment Gov. Haley Barbour signs it. Normally, new laws go into effect July 1 when the state’s new fiscal year begins.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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