County takeover of health department not a good idea, officials say

DOUBLE SPRINGS     - Current legislation being considered in Montgomery has raised the debate over whether a county commission should oversee that county’s health department, pending the abolition of the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Senate Bill 240  was just one of several state issues discussed openly during the Winston County Republican Meeting Monday, March 8, at the Winston County Courthouse in Double Springs.
Special guest Ashley Pool, CEO of Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville, spoke out about several bills at the state level that could have an impact on the healthcare system.
Prior to coming to Lakeland in 2018, Pool worked 15 years as a nurse practitioner, providing healthcare to rural areas as well as worked as a critical care nurse at Huntsville Hospital.  So, Pool is familiar with how legislation related to healthcare could affect the state, especially rural areas such as Winston County.
“It’s a very busy legislative session, probably the busiest we’ve had in a long time,” Pool began, “more than we’ve ever had when it relates to healthcare.”

Restructuring the Alabama Department of Public Health took the forefront of discussion at the meeting.  A proposal in this legislation iwould abolish the Alabama Department of Public Health by 2022.
Currently, the department is governed by the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, which is comprised entirely of physicians, Pool explained.  If the state health department is abolished, a board will be comprised of professionals from many medical fields, including dentists, pharmacists, nurses, doctors, consumers, etc.
“It will have a different feel to it, which we’ve seen during the pandemic would have been very helpful, especially in rural Alabama,” Pool stated. “We only have one rural representative on the board for the Alabama Department of Public Health.”
The legislation, if approved,  would also have county commissions run and regulate each county’s department of public health, officials noted.
Pool, addressing Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes - who was seated in the back of the room - noted this proposal would have to be discussed more in-depth.
Resident Crystal Till spoke out,  asking that among the large amounts of health care legislation being considered, what piece of legislation concerned Pool the most.
“I think all of the bills have the potential to have consequences,” Pool responded.
For some counties such as Jefferson  and Madison, having commission control over public health departments should be considered, Pool stated.
“They probably have enough resources that they could operate OK. I don’t know if it would be great. They have resources,” Pool continued.  “But when you get in rural areas, the resources are just not there financially.”
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” Hayes said.   “I don’t think the county commissioners are going to want to be responsible for that department.  Small counties cannot do this.”
Winston County Commissioner David Cummings added, “The only way a small county like us will be able to do this is to hire help. We don’t have a budget to hire help like that.”
State Representative Tracy Estes said he would have concerns with commissions overseeing health departments.
“Our local county commissions already have an assortment of responsibilities without taking on this additional burden,” Estes pointed out.  “I think our commissioners would be the first to admit few if any would be qualified to serve in this role.“
After the meeting, Hayes agreed with those statements, citing commissioners are not in the healthcare business.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in that bill,” Hayes said. “It would be disastrous for the state. It would be disastrous for the health department.  As a county commission, we are not qualified to run that.
“People who run the health department are trained.  People’s health is valuable,” Hayes added. “We need to keep that in mind.
“I don’t know how this came about, and I will be checking on it,” Hayes continued to point out. “I don’t think anybody is going to benefit when the county commission comes in  and takes over the health department.  “I think it’s ridiculous.”
State Representative Tim Wadsworth noted ADPH does a good job and has done a good job during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our Winston County Department of Public Health and its staff are dedicated individuals who are excellent,” Wadsworth stated.  “I would not support in any shape, form or fashion the abolishment of the department.”
Estes added, “While our local health department employees are more than qualified to perform these duties, I do not think it would be in  our best interest to see the overall responsibility turned over to the counties.”
State Senator Garlan Gudger stressed there are different ways to control some of the limited freedoms placed on the public during the pandemic.
The question, Gudger added, was what was the best option for the state going forward to have full freedoms while still keeping Alabamians safe during a future pandemic.
“Getting rid of the department of health is not the answer,” Gudger pointed out. “But there needs to be some changes in operations that allow people to have more freedoms during the pandemic.”
The bill has gotten out of committee at the state level, but much more discussion is needed before the bill comes to the floor, according to Gudger.
“I think it’s a lot better to have a state department saying one thing for 67 counties, than to have every county doing something different,” Gudger pointed out.


See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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