COVINGTON — Concerns over what appears to be an attempted power grab by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) that would take away the power and authority of the local board of health has led the Covington City Council to send a letter opposing the attempt to local state legislators.
Senate Bill 256 was introduced on Feb. 25 and had a hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee the next day. David C. Will, a Gwinnett County attorney who is a former state assistant attorney general who represents the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Department district, brought the bill to the attention of the City Council at the March 1 meeting.
Will said the DPH is planning to reorganize the local boards of health throughout the state.
“The bill basically changes the format of public health in the state and makes all the (local) boards of health advisory boards only, and takes away their primary function and puts it back into the Department of Public Health,” Will said. “They said the primary reason why they are trying to do this was because the Department of Public Health was having trouble recruiting physicians to serve as the district health officer in some districts around the state, with some vacancies up to three years.
“They also said that the law, which currently lets the health departments combine into a functioning district like we have with Newton, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties, requires the consent of those boards to be in it, and the (DPH) commissioner (Dr. Kathleen Toomey) feels that’s cumbersome and she wants to be able to move those districts around as she sees fit.”
Will said one of the biggest concerns of local health departments is that the bill would take away local control over the boards of health and their abilities to contract for services and get money from the state. It would also make employees of local health departments state employees, which he said is a significant change.
“I started as an assistant attorney general many moons ago, and I’ve never seen a bill quite as drastic as this as far as public health goes,” Will said, adding that the bill caught everyone on the county level by surprise.
“Your district health officer is Dr. Audrey Arona,” Will said. “When she shared that bill with all of her counterparts around the state on Thursday of last week, not one person had heard of it before. So this bill was drawn up completely by the state, with no input from local health departments.”
Will said with crossover day coming up soon, the bill, which is currently still in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, may not make it out of the Senate and into the House in time. But he noted that the state seems to be pushing it hard and fast.
“I wasn’t expecting the bill to be introduced on a Thursday and them having a committee meeting the next morning when two of the sponsors said they hadn’t even seen it yet,” Will said. “So there is some haste on the part of the state to put it together, but I don’t know if that is shared by the Senate.”
Following discussion, the council unanimously approved sending a letter to their state legislators expressing the city’s opposition to the bill as it is currently written.
Will stated that he will keep the City Council updated on any changes made to the bill and its progress through the General Assembly.