In the run-up to Tuesday’s meeting, some questioned surrounded whether Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong would be confirmed. Armstrong’s been under fire for decreasing enrollment in the Children's Medical Services program, rising HIV infections and staff cuts in local health departments. The Senate Health Policy Committee narrowly confirmed him on a 5-to-4 vote.
Early in his confirmation hearing, Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong sought to highlight what he considers achievements.
“We’re healthier now than we were three years ago. We have the lowest infant mortality rate in our history. We have 125,000 more Floridians at healthy weight—that’s the population of Gainesville," Armstrong said.
But for lawmakers, those achievements aren’t the focus.
The Department, under Armstrong, has been criticized for changes in the Children’s Medical Services program that dropped more than 9,000 sick and disabled kids. The department changed its criteria and has started re-enrolling kids. DOH has also been criticized for a large number of staff cuts and rising numbers of HIV infections in South Florida. Armstrong says he wants to improve services, but Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, doesn’t buy it:
“Why would the Chief Medical Officer agree to reduce our county health department services by hundreds of millions of dollars when we have so many in the coverage gap….and an epidemic of escalating, new HIV cases, and the threat of Zikka virus, and who knows what’s next?”
According to Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the Florida Department of health has seen 200,000 fewer patients in the past three years. Gaetz notes part of the decrease in services is due to more people becoming insured and going elsewhere, as well as Florida’s transition to Medicaid Managed Care. But he says there are some areas of the state where DOH has scaled back despite the numbers of uninsured people remaining high.
“What’s happening to those people who used to come to the county health department for primary care…and now in those extraordinarily challenged communities , half as much services are being provided and three-and-a-half, four years ago?” Gaetz asked.
Armstrong says there are other places those people can go for healthcare, such as the federally qualified health centers that operate in many parts of the state. But Gaetz indicated he doesn’t fully believe that explanation. Governor Rick Scott has vetoed millions of dollars lawmakers have tried to steer to other healthcare providers in some of the most needy areas. And Gaetz pressed Armstrong on whether the Surgeon General would push the governor to keep the funding intact:
“Are you prepared to advise the Governor to not veto any longer appropriations made by this legislature for free clinics?” Gaetz said.
“President Gaetz, I am prepared to advise the Governor that free and charitable clinics provide important services of value to our communities," Armstrong responded, but stopped short of saying he'd push the governor on that point.
Sen. Denise Grimsley , R-Sebring, offered a defense of Armstrong, noting it has been the legislature that has cut jobs in the department. She also asked him about his personal health. Armstrong has cancer and is in treatment.
“As I’ve shared with some, I’ve worked hard not to skip a beat. I will acknowledge my public appearances have come down, because at some points in y treatment, where its ill-advised to shake a lot of hands, but we’ve made a lot of progress," he said.
Grimsley, like Gaetz, puts the blame on Governor Rick Scott for vetoing funding that would have supported public health. Lawmakers peppered Armstrong with questions about his decisions regarding deregulation of pediatric cardiology programs, and ongoing delays with the state’s medical marijuana program.
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*Correction: The confirmation vote was 5-4, not 6-4 as originally written.