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Surgeon General's Confirmation In Jeopardy

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Health
The Florida Channel
Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong

Despite a show of support from Gov. Rick Scott, a Senate panel Tuesday postponed for a second time a vote on the confirmation of state Surgeon General John Armstrong.

The move by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee could end Armstrong's bid to keep his job as secretary of the Florida Department of Health.
The Ethics and Elections Committee also put off consideration of Armstrong's confirmation last week, and it was not immediately clear whether the panel would meet again before the legislative session ends March 11. Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said members of the panel continued to have unresolved questions about the surgeon general's performance.

Richter, who supports Armstrong, said he still hoped the surgeon general's confirmation would be approved by the panel and head to the floor for a vote by the full Senate.

"I'd like to see a continuity in the leadership at the Department of Health," Richter said. "I think the surgeon general's the man for the job. We've got a lot of major issues in the state of Florida, and I think the surgeon general is the man to address them."

Armstrong has led the Department of Health since 2012. If he doesn't receive confirmation this year, he will have to step down from his post.

The surgeon general has faced senators' questions about issues such as a sharp drop in the number of people receiving services from county health departments and Florida's highest-in-the-nation rate for new HIV infections. Senators also have raised concerns about the Children's Medical Services program, which serves youngsters with "chronic and serious" conditions and last year dropped more than 13,000 kids from its rolls.

"All of these things just built up, and at some point I think people say, 'What do you have to do to lose your confirmation?' " Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said.

Armstrong's quest for Senate approval has drawn considerable public comment and media attention. He was approved last month by the Senate Health Policy Committee in a 5-4 vote. In the run-up to Tuesday's Ethics and Elections Committee meeting, the Department of Health and Scott's office released a series of supportive letters from health-related groups.

On Monday, in a further show of support, Scott met with Armstrong and representatives of the Cancer Action Network, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Public Health Association, Nemours Children's Health System and the Council of Medical School Deans --- all of which back the surgeon general's confirmation. Armstrong is struggling to keep his job at the same time he is being treated for colon cancer.

In a statement Monday, Scott called Armstrong "a fighter. Not only is he currently fighting against colon cancer, but he has continued to fight for the well-being of everyone in our state --- whether it is against epidemics like Ebola and Zika, or illnesses like cancer or AIDS that are still affecting far too many in our state."

But Braynon said he didn't believe the campaign of support for Armstrong would succeed.

"After three and a half years, there's a very strong track record to make a decision," Braynon said. "And between a 5-4 vote in Health Policy and what looks like a tie vote here (in Ethics and Elections) --- and you're talking about people from both sides questioning seriously some of the decisions his department has made. … This would just be a precursor to what would happen on the floor, if we got to the floor."

Several senators have expressed concern about services at the state's 67 county health departments. During the Health Policy Committee discussion Feb. 16, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, noted that county health departments now see 200,000 fewer patients and provide 800,000 fewer individual services than they did when Armstrong became surgeon general.

Senators also have pointed to reductions as a cause of the state's spike in new HIV/AIDS cases, which is especially acute in South Florida.

Braynon said department leaders "were pushing for the Department of Health to not be the primary-care physicians for people who don't have insurance. … Then they say our push is to stop disease, to stem epidemics that are happening. … Well, our biggest epidemic is AIDS, and he didn't start talking about it until he didn't have the votes. That's a pure failure."

Gaetz, despite his questioning of Armstrong, voted for the confirmation in the Health Policy Committee and said he hoped the Ethics and Elections Committee would take it up.

"I believe and I hope that the governor's nominee deserves an up or down vote," Gaetz said.