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Health News Florida

Second Senate Panel Supports Rivkees Confirmation

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees
UF Health

Despite concerns about a sexual harassment investigation, his continued employment with the University of Florida and a lack of public health credentials, Scott Rivkees’ nomination as secretary of the Department of Health and state surgeon general unanimously cleared a second Senate panel on Tuesday. 

Rivkees faces vetting by one more Senate panel before the full Senate votes on his confirmation.

Appearing before the Senate Health Policy Committee Tuesday, Rivkees read prepared remarks that touched on what he has accomplished since Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped him for the post last year.

“My career path has prepared me well for this critical mission,” Rivkees said.

Rivkees noted that he met with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield on his first day on the job to discuss the steps Florida can take “to end the epidemic of HIV.”

His second day at the health department, Rivkees said, was spent on the phone with CDC officials discussing the state’s hepatitis A outbreak, which he declared a public health emergency on Aug. 1.

The News Service of Florida reported that Rivkees was the subject of a university sexual harassment investigation after a complaint was filed against him alleging he told people he worked with that ”If we can’t agree on this we’ll all have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out.”  The 2014 probe found that Rivkees made the sexually suggestive comments.

The News Service also reported that Rivkees has a contract with the University of Florida that allows him to maintain his tenured position while working full-time at the university and receiving a salary.

During a Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting last month, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, pressed Rivkees about the hot tub remarks and policies that are in place at the health department to prevent sexual harassment of employees.

Book said she considered Rivkees’ responses unsatisfactory, but the panel voted 8-2 in favor of his nomination.

Book, who also serves on the Senate Health Policy Committee, again asked Rivkees about the policies during Tuesday’s meeting. But this time he was prepared for the questions.

Rivkees told Book that the Department of Health has training programs all new hires are required to take and that the agency provides all employees with a number to call to report any inappropriate behavior.

“If a supervisor is notified of a problem, they need to report this within four hours,” Rivkees said.

Moreover, the department has an equal opportunity unit that is spearheaded by what Rivkees called an ”equal opportunity manager.”

But it wasn’t just the sexual harassment allegations that fueled questions from committee members Tuesday.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, asked Rivkees how he balances his full-time position at the state health department while maintaining a tenured faculty position at the University of Florida, where he continues to draw a salary.

“This is a gigantic responsibility yet you refuse to move and spend 100 percent of your time here in Tallahassee dedicated to this position,” Cruz said. “So I ask you specifically, when will you be doing this job 100 percent of the time? I asked you that on behalf of the taxpayer and the fact that we expect you to be here all the time.”

Rivkees told Cruz that he dedicates his work week to his Department of Health duties but that he drives back to Gainesville on the weekend to fulfill his academic requirements, which include work on two National Institutes of Health research grants.

Cruz also pressed Rivkees on his public health experience. Florida law requires the health secretary, a position that doubles as the state’s surgeon general, to have advanced training in public health or extensive experience.

“I worry about, are we prepared --- and are you prepared --- for what could be a coronavirus outbreak in Florida,” she said.

Rivkees said he is qualified for the post.