Life or death for Health Department

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – It was perhaps the crucial moment during last week's hearings held by the Senate Public Health Committee on the embattled administration of the Mississippi Department of Public Health.

Hob Bryan, D-Amory, usually one of the more vocal members of the Senate, had said nothing during the two days of hearings until state Health Officer Brian Amy finished answering his critics late on the second day.

Even assuming that some of the critics were former employees with “axes to grind,” Bryan said, “that is still a large number of very credible people. I have come to the conclusion you being the state health officer is not a good fit right now.”

Bryan compared the situation to a baseball team whose manager is fired and then goes on a winning streak, while the fired manager takes over another team that also goes on a winning streak.

The problems might not be all of Amy's making, Bryan said, but “we need to look toward having a new health officer. This is not working out.”

Amy, in a calm, measured tone, answered by defending his nearly four-year tenure as head of the Mississippi Department of Health.

“Thousands of people go to work every day, work hard under much better conditions than four years ago,” Amy said.

“I think I have done a good job. In the future I want to do a better job.”

The hearings were held in response to a bevy of complaints about the department, including the management style, the $40,000 pay increase Amy has received in the last four years. The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, also criticized the agency for its many reorganizations since 2002.

During the hearings, former and current employees and people who use the agency's services questioned the competency and the management style of top administrators.

Luckily for Amy, the Mississippi Legislature cannot fire the state health officer or the heads of other state agencies. But because legislators control the purse strings and write the laws, they can make it difficult for an agency head. Still, there are countless examples of agency heads surviving the wrath of key legislators for years upon end.

But Amy and the Mississippi Board of Health, which hired him and sets policy for the Department of Health, are in a unique situation. The mass of criticism leveled at the Health Department comes in advance of the 2007 session when legislation to re-authorize the agency and Board of Health must be taken up or the agency will cease to exist.

The Legislature authorizes nearly all state agencies for a certain number of years – in part as an oversight tool. It is not uncommon for an agency on the year that it authorizing legislation “sunsets” to receive more scrutiny.

But the Department of Health, which provides a range of public health functions from education to regulation, is receiving more scrutiny than most.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who conducted last week's hearings and has more scheduled, says that in general, he favors having the heads of most major state agencies appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Nunnelee said he believes there is less accountability in situations such as the Board of Health, where its members are appointed by the governor and they then hire the agency head.

“In general I think the office of the governor needs to have more responsibility and accountability,” Nunnelee said. “The people of the state can vote out a governor if they are upset with the way he runs an agency.”

Nunnelee said after the hearings that he is not sure what will become of the Department of Health, but not everyone left with the same impression.

Sen. Billy Thames, D-Mize, said he was not questioning the motives of those who testified against Amy and other top administrators, but said there should have been efforts to find people who thought the Department of Health was doing a good job.

“If we are going to make decisions about the life and death of this very important agency, we ought to be afforded both sides,” Thames said. “Surely to goodness, there are people on the other side.”

Despite Thames' comments, Nunnelee said that based on testimony thus far and on the PEER findings, “I do not see the Senate Public Health Committee reauthorizing the Health Department as it currently exists.”

Nunnelee's counterpart in the House, Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, attended parts of Nunnelee's hearings and admitted, “Certainly there is room for improvement at the Department of Health.”

As far as what will happen to the Department of Health and its governing Board of Health during the 2007 session, Holland said, “I am wide open to all suggestions except letting any chief executive (governor) appointing the chief health officer.”

Unlike Nunnelee, Holland said he believes state agencies run more efficiently when they are governed by a board or commission that selects an executive director who is removed from politics.

Both sides of the issue probably will be closely examined during the '07 legislative session when the Health Department and Board of Health are discussed.

Eventually, Holland and Nunnelee will have to find a compromise and reauthorize the Department of Health or it will be no more.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bharri9015@aol.com

Among the Department of Health's functions: running health clinics throughout the state, monitoring and reporting on transmittable diseases, and regulating various entities, including restaurants, day-care centers, wastewater treatment systems and public water systems.