State Health Officer Scott Harris rejects efforts by lawmakers to make his office accountable to an elected official like other state agency heads.
Harris heads the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH). Unlike other agency heads, he is hired and can only be fired by a board of physicians who are members of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), a dues-paying organization with its own lobbyists.
State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) introduced a bill this year that would permit the governor to appoint the state health officer instead. However, he claimed earlier this month that the bill had been "gutted" by "key figures" in the Legislature.
Nevertheless, Givhan said on Thursday that he thought the bill had momentum going into next week.
Currently, the bill would make the State Health Officer role appointed by the governor from a list of names submitted by the board of MASA members. The governor would also have the ability to fire the State Health Officer.
On Tuesday, Harris delivered the keynote address at the "Substance Use and Social Justice Symposium" at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB). He disparaged the efforts of state lawmakers to restructure the appointment structure of the state's public health bureaucracy.
"We're dealing with bills that are actually going after the current structure of the department to make it more under the oversight of traditional political structures," Harris said. "And that is similar to what's happened in other states. We're fortunate it hasn't gone quite so crazy here … We will see what happens next."
However, Harris's sentiment seemed to change when 1819 News approached him following his speech and asked him to comment on the legislation.
"I would say we worked with Senator Givhan on that," Harris told 1819 News. "He's been very open and receptive. We certainly appreciate the intent of what he's doing and are happy to cooperate. Ultimately, we work for the state. Whatever the governor and the legislature work out is okay with us."
In the question-and-answer portion of his keynote speech, Harris also took the time to criticize legislation in Alabama referring to transgender people. Harris said that the ADPH is "appalled" by some of the legislation in Alabama.
Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation in 2022 that prohibited providing puberty blockers, artificial hormones, and sex surgery operations for children under 19.
1819 News asked Harris to specify which legislation he referred to, and he declined.
When 1819 News reported his comments on Wednesday, Harris told lawmakers that the report was "taken out of context." However, 1819 News released the full audio from Harris's remarks on Thursday.
Givhan even cited Harris's comments for increased interest in his legislation.
Additionally, Harris took the time to urge audience members to lobby legislators to expand Medicaid and insisted that opposition to Medicaid expansion is racist.
"What are we going to do about Medicaid expansion? I will say you can change things by how you vote," Harris said. "You really can. That's the simplest answer to give, even though it's the hardest one to do. I will tell you, legislators, they really notice when people … send them a handwritten letter. We kind of have this idea that if we can get five different people to interact with them personally with them on an issue, we have a good chance of changing their minds. A constituent. Not an expert. If they hear from them, they can change their minds on a lot of different issues."
"I've never really explained Medicaid expansion to a legislator who was opposed to it and recognized that they actually understood what I was talking about," he continued. "There's a lot of misconceptions out there. The single biggest misconception about Medicaid expansion is that Alabama already provides medical coverage to a lot of able-bodied adults who won't work. Hopefully, I'm speaking to friends. That's just kind of a racist assumption. It's just based on a lot of stereotypes, and it's wrong."
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