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State health agencies under House microscope

Amid talk of major restructuring in Florida's health agencies, House Speaker Dean Cannon on Thursday created a special committee that will look at making changes in health- and human-services programs.

The Winter Park Republican announced formation of the Select Committee on Government Reorganization and singled out health and human services as one of two specific areas of focus. The other is to look at programs that regulate economic activity.

"The 2011 Legislative Session is an opportunity for transformational change,'' Cannon said in a memo to House members. "We should thoughtfully and systematically pursue true reform and avoid the temptation to make changes simply for the sake of change.''

The memo does not detail Cannon's possible ideas for revamping health- and human-services programs. But House leaders began focusing last year on making major changes in the Department of Health, and Gov. Rick Scott's transition team recently called for merging the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration.

House Health Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said this morning he has not talked with Cannon about the new committee's activities. But Hudson said he thinks it is smart to look at potential reorganization outside of regular House committees, which will be dealing with issues such as the state's budget shortfall.

"I applaud the speaker for doing it in a separate venue,'' said Hudson, who has led efforts to revamp --- and likely scale back --- the Department of Health.

Scott's transition team offered far-reaching recommendations in December that included merging the Department of Health, AHCA, the Department of Elder Affairs and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

The transition team said such as merger could create efficiencies and financial savings. But critics immediately attacked the idea and likened it to the old Department of Health and Rehabilitatitive Services, which was broken up in the 1990s.

Scott's position on such a merger is not clear. When asked Tuesday, he said he had not made a proposal about consolidating the Department of Health and AHCA.

When pressed further about whether he will make such a proposal, he replied, "Not today.'' An Orlando Sentinel blog item this afternoon also suggested that Cannon might not be in a hurry to merge agencies.

Hudson said one possible approach would be to reorganize the Department of Health first and look for ways to "streamline" other agencies. He said agencies could then be merged in the future.

House leaders and Scott's transition team have hammered the Department of Health, arguing that it needs to become more focused. The transition-team report also criticized department management.

"It is obvious that the current state of affairs is a product of a multitude of issues, including but not limited to, a lack of understanding with respect to the department's mission, an absence of defined and measurable outcomes and ineffective department leadership,'' the report said.

But public-health advocates fear that a reorganization will lead to dismantling programs that they consider vital, including preventive and educational programs. The department is required to submit possible changes to the Legislature by March 1.

Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.