MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would let the governor pick the state’s top public health official.
The Senate Health Committee voted 8-3 to advance the bill by Sen. Jim McClendon to the Senate floor. McClendon, an optometrist, said the change would make the position more accountable to elected leaders. But two other doctors on the committee argued it is wrong to interject politics into public health decisions.
The state health officer, a position currently held by Dr. Scott Harris, is selected by the state public health committee which consists of members appointed by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. The bill does away with the position of state health officer and creates the cabinet post of secretary of health who would be appointed by the governor. The secretary would then appoint a chief medical officer.
“We now have a private club that names the members of the Board of Health and then those members instead select the state health officer. And that state health officer has no accountability back to the executive branch or the legislative branch. His only allegiance is back to this private club, the Medical Association,” McClendon said.
McClendon said the bill was not about Harris and his handling of the COVID-29 pandemic, but debate on the bill comes at a time where there has been pushback against business closures and restrictions to combat the spread of the deadly virus.
Two doctors on the Senate committee said the change would wrongly interject politics into health decisions.
“I don’t want him answering to the governor. I want him answering to the patients in the state. …. We are going to make it a political position and not a free thinker,” Sen. Tim Melson.
Republican Sen. Larry Stutts said it was a step in the wrong direction “to have a political appointment take that position.”