Governor Kay Ivey has signed legislation into law that changes how the State Health Officer is appointed and restructures the State Committee on Public Health.

Current State Health Officer Scott Harris faced backlash for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of lockdown protocols, masking mandates and other restrictions drew mass outcry for more accountability from the office in the preceding years of the pandemic.

The State Committee of Public Health, currently composed of 12 members of the Medical Association for the State of Alabama (MASA) Board of Censors and four additional state chairs, appoints the State Health Officer.

Senate Bill 128 (SB128) by State Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence) requires the governor to appoint the State Health Officer from a list of candidates submitted by the State Committee of Public Health. The bill also removes the synonymous relationship between MASA and the Committee of Public Health.

Alabama law states that MASA "is the state board of health." Melson's bill removes that provision and replaces it by abolishing the State Board of Health and transferring its powers and duties to the State Committee of Public Health.

"It was one of those bills that was wanted by those who thought that [Harris] infringed on their freedom," Melson told 1819 News. "So it just came to an agreement of, 'let's do this in a right manner,' and we did. We made it to where he's accountable, but it's not punitive. I mean, he's got 5 million patients. I don't know anybody that can run a practice with 5 million patients and keep them all happy, but we made him accountable while treating him like the professional that he is."

The law changes the makeup of the State Committee of Public Health, removing MASA appointees over time, with significant changes occurring in May 2027. 

Beginning May 1, 2027, the State Committee of Public Health will comprise eight physicians appointed by MASA. Additionally, the Alabama State Society of Anesthesiologists, the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Alabama Medical Directors Association, the Council on Dental Health, the Council on Animal and Environmental Health, the Council on the Prevention of Disease and Medical Care, and the Council on Health Costs, Administration, and Organization will each receive one appointment.

The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House of Representatives, or president pro tempore of the Senate can petition the committee to override or discipline the State Health Officer if the majority concur on some suspected official mismanagement or wrongdoing.

"I think ADPH is extremely happy that he's accountable but not terminated at the whim of some political wave," Melson continued. "Because he has tough decisions to make. And quite frankly, he didn't make any without the governor knowing about them, so it's not exactly like we increased that input. Overall, we can't treat a physician like any other employee because he's not going to tell you what you want."

"[Harris] did a good job during this situation. Things could have been done better, but it's hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime situation."

The provision allowing the governor to appoint a State Health Officer shall become operative when a vacancy occurs on or after Oct. 1, 2024.

"I think it is important that there is more information and transparency on decisions," Melson said. "That doesn't mean it will change the decisions because he's going to make it based on the people's health, but at least it will be an informed decision. There will be more transparency and more communication going on."

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