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West Virginia bill providing checks on health departments up for passage

State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, joined by state Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, raised concerns about SB 12. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Local health departments and Senate Democratic leaders are concerned a bill meant to provide oversight to local health departments would interfere with public health and erode morale of overworked health officials.

Senate Bill 12 is up for passage today in the state Senate. It was moved to third reading with the right to amend Monday.

SB 12 would give county commissioners and municipal governments a non-voting seat on county and city boards of health. It also gives county and city governments the authority to approve or reject any rule or part of a rule created by a local board of health except instances of health emergencies. In those instances, county and city governments would have 30 days to approve those emergency rules once issued.

The bill also puts all local health departments under the authority of the state health officer in the event of a declared statewide health emergency. The bill applies to individual county and city health departments as well as joint health departments between more than one county or county and city joint health departments.

SB 12 has raised the concern of county and city health officials. In a statement Monday the Association of Local Health Departments believe the bill hinders the ability of health officials to respond to the needs of their communities. The association believes that keeping county and city officials as voting members of health boards already provides a voice of taxpayers in health department decisions.

“Our local health board members who are county commissioners should be allowed to continue to serve on our boards and not be made ex-officio members without votes,” said association spokesman Tom Susman. “Our county commissioners are valuable conduits for cooperation among local entities, and they have played a key role in our ability to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus held a press conference after Monday’s floor session to talk about their concerns about SB 12. State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is a physician in Madison. He said members of county and city boards of health are appointed by local officials and can already be removed, but public health decisions need to be free from political influences.

“The few words this bill adds to state code belies the potential effect on the health of all,” Stollings said. “County commissions don’t want this to pass, the boards of health don’t want this to pass, and public health advocate people don’t want this to pass … this is an anti-public health bill.”

Opponents said the bill is meant to be an end-run around boards of health and prohibitions against indoor smoking. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network came out against the bill last week, and the Association of Local Health Departments also opposes rolling back indoor smoking prohibitions.

“Second-hand smoke is a serious health risk for the citizens of our state, which already has significant health hurdles,” Susman said. “The local health boards and departments are in the middle of protecting the citizens of the state from the coronavirus with testing and vaccine administration and other services. They should not be required to stop the local COVID-19 response to facilitate a process designed to force a rollback of the local clean indoor air ordinances.”

An amendment from state Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, would take out language in the bill grandfathering previous health department rules, which would open up all past health department rules for county and city governments to amend or remove.

“They tried to clean it up and make it look better, but it’s not better. It’s still bad,” Stollings said. “(The Karnes) amendment … would make it a lot worse.”

“The Karnes amendment, if adopted, is an attempt to roll back the smoking ordinances in each of the counties, and if it is successful, West Virginia will return to the days of smoking in the workplace, restaurants and other locations,” Susman said.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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