A bill (SB 240) by optometrist and Senate Health Committee Chairman Jim McClendon (R-Springville) to abolish the position of state health officer and overhaul the entire Alabama Department of Public Health and all county health departments in the state passed committee on an 8-3 vote this week. The opposing votes came from Sens. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia) and Tim Melson (R-Florence), both physicians, and also from Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook).
Sen. McClendon told the audience that the State Committee of Public Health, which appoints the state health officer, was just “a private club” of doctors, and that he aimed to change that. While current law provides that the State Committee of Public Health (12 physicians and four other members) appoints the state health officer, SB 240 would instead have the governor appoint a “secretary of health” who would not be required to be a physician in the proposed legislation.
Senators Larry Stutts, M.D. and Tim Melson, M.D, both took issue with McClendon’s explanation of the bill and with the bill itself. Stutts said he believes the timing of the bill is wrong.
“The tail end of a pandemic is not the time to do this. I respect Dr. Harris and his objectivity and expertise. I haven’t always agreed with all the decisions made, but I don’t want the state health officer to be political appointment,” Stutts said.
“I want the state health officer accountable to other doctors,” Melson said. “I don’t want to make [it] a political position…I think the system may need a tune-up but not an overhaul, not what’s in this bill.”
Sen. Billy Beasley (D-Clayton), a pharmacist, said he thinks State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris should be “commended” for his work during the pandemic, adding “I think the state health officer needs to be a doctor.”
Those voting in favor of the bill in committee were Sens. Jim McClendon, Billy Beasley, Tom Whatley, Jack Williams, Sam Givhan, Donnie Chesteen, Garlan Gudger, and Linda Coleman-Madison.