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Senate passes Dept. of Health overhaul

A massive bill reorganizing the Department of Health, sending some of its functions to other agencies and de-emphasizing prevention of chronic disease, passed the Senate today.

The House passed the bill (HB 1263) a week ago, but because the Senate amended it the bill must go back to the House. If the House does not take it up today -- the last day of the legislative session -- the issue is dead for the year.

One amendment the Senate added would strengthen DOH regulation of liposuction in doctor's offices, a practice that has led to several patient deaths.

The bill that has passed both chambers would close A.G. Holley Hospital in Lantana, which houses tuberculosis patients. Supporters of closing Holley say it's a costly anachronism and say other states treat TB patients as outpatients or in less-expensive community facilities.

The bill now back before the House is much tamer than the one that Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, filed months ago. That one would have moved many DOH responsibilities to the counties and cost thousands of state jobs.

After county commissions balked at taking on the responsibility and cost, Hudson removed his "decentralization" language from the bill.

Still there was discontent with the bill. "While we are disappointed and will seek a veto, we are prepared to work with the Department to ensure that public health remains a state priority," said Christopher Nuland, who represents the Florida Public Health Association.

Public health experts, including some who once held high-level jobs at the health department, signed a letter last week saying the bill still shouldn't be enacted. "With the growing population of the uninsured, a faltering economy and a large immigrant population, this is a time to strengthen Florida's public health effort, not weaken it," the letter said.

Senate sponsor Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said on the floor today that they should not be concerned. "This bill does nothing to hurt the Department of Health's mission," he said.

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to public-service journalism. Editor Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.