Senate Democrats voice opposition to bill changing authority of local health departments

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Democrats in the state Senate are voicing opposition to Senate Bill 12 as it nears passage, calling it an ‘anti-public health bill that politicizes public health.’

SB 12, which will sit before the body on Tuesday for a third reading, is purposed to update the authority of local health departments. The bill requires a public comment period on new or amended rules and requiring county commissions and other board of health-appointing agencies to approve the rule before it is implemented.

In a press conference held by the Senate Democratic leaders on Monday, Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, member of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee said health should never be a politicized issue.

Richard Lindsay

“Protecting our health departments, giving them the independence of making these decisions keeps the politics out for the benefit of the public. That’s why we oppose it and that’s why we always support as a caucus more money to the local health departments,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, fielded questions about the opposition to SB 12 and the House version of it, House Bill 2015.

Stollings also expressed the need to fund health departments more, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These health departments are small and out in my area, should have 10 people on them. There are three people. They are trying to do contact tracing, vaccination, trying to do all the other sanitizations, wells, and restaurant inspections,” Stollings said.

SB 12 defines “appointing authority” and permits the appointing authority to remove local health board members and can serve as ex-officio non-voting members of the local health board, for example, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

SB 12 also requires boards of health to post new rules on the State Register and their website and requires a public comment period of 30 days. In its text, the bill would require local health departments to come under the control of the state health officer when the Governor declares a state of emergency in that county.

“Basically what this does is takes out of hands of physicians and health care providers, health decisions. This requires them to go through a process where their decisions are being questioned by county commissioners and some state authority,” Lindsay said.

Stollings gave a prominent example of what this could mean in terms of indoor smoking, which is banned by local county health departments around the state.

Ron Stollings

“There has been various county commissions throughout the state in the past that wanted to be able to allow indoor smoking. We have been fortunate that that has not been able to happen. However, if Senate Bill 12 passes, it’ll be whatever the county commission wants,” Stollings said.

Stollings is worried about the direction of a few health bills under the Capitol dome this session. He stated opposition to Senate Bill 334, which establishes a license application process for harm reduction programs, calling it an ‘anti harm reduction bill.’

“These bills will result in higher death rates, more heart disease, our children’s exposures to smoke. At a time when we should be focusing on pro-public health, we are running 180 degrees in the opposite direction,” he said.

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