State Health Officer Scott Harris' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about government power, prompting members in both chambers of the legislature to look to make some changes.
Multiple bills have been filed to address how the state health officer is appointed and his scope of authority.
House Bill 143 (HB143), sponsored by State Rep. Mark Shirey (R-Mobile), would limit the emergency powers of the State Health Officer in cases of a public health emergency.
The bill would provide that an emergency order relating to a disease outbreak generally applicable to the public adopted or issued by the State Health Officer may only take effect if the Governor approves the order and a copy is filed with the Secretary of State.
The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and the State Committee of Public Health voted to approve an administrative rule change to the State Health Officer's emergency powers in December 2023.
The rule prevents the State Health Officer, a position currently held by Dr. Scott Harris, from issuing or authorizing any emergency powers during a pandemic without the Governor's direct consent, approval and signature; the same result as HB143, just without the power of state law.
HB143 is one of two bills this session aimed at the ADPH and the state health officer.
State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) also filed a bill that would change the appointment method of the State Health Officer.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens and lawmakers alike criticized Harris's perceived unilateral authority in the appointment process and the scope of his authority.
Senate Bill 74 (SB74) would allow the Governor to appoint the State Health Officer instead of the current appointment by a state board identical to a state advocacy association. Thus far, SB74 has 13 co-sponsors in the Senate.
ADPH acknowledged the December rule change was a preemptive response to Givhan, who had previously threatened to address Harris' scope of authority through legislation.
According to the ADPH, "Alabama law designates the State Board of Health as an advisory board to the state in all medical matters, matters of sanitation, and public health. The Medical Association, which meets annually, is the State Board of Health. The State Committee of Public Health meets monthly between the annual meetings and is authorized to act on behalf of the State Board of Health. The State Health Officer is empowered to act on behalf of the State Committee of Public Health when the committee is not in session."
In other words, the Medical Association for the State of Alabama (MASA) is the State Board of Health and appoints the State Health Officer.
The State Committee of Public Health comprises 12 members of the MASA censors board, along with the four subcomittee chairs of the state committee. According to its website, MASA "exists to serve, lead and unite physicians in promoting the highest quality of health care for the people of Alabama through advocacy, information and education."
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