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FL Department Of Health Official Takes Tour In Wake Of Senate Concerns

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

After the Florida Department of Health lost its leader last month in a bruising confirmation battle, his interim replacement is traveling the state to talk with local health officials.

Interim Surgeon General Celeste Philip has been making the rounds since the Florida Senate — in a rare move — rejected the confirmation of her predecessor, John Armstrong.

Last week, Philip embarked on a "listening tour" of county health departments, which were among the biggest bones of contention in the Senate's debate over whether to confirm Armstrong as surgeon general and secretary of the Department of Health, a post he had held since 2012.

Members of two Senate committees questioned Armstrong about cuts to county health departments, the state's highest-in-the-nation rate of new HIV infections and a sharp drop in enrollment in the Children's Medical Services program, which serves youngsters with "chronic and serious" conditions.

On March 11, shortly after lawmakers adjourned without confirming Armstrong, Gov. Rick Scott tapped Philip as interim surgeon general. She had been the deputy secretary for health and the deputy state health officer for Children's Medical Services.

Philip, who will meet with county health officials through mid-May, said the first thing she told them was, "Everything is on the table for discussion."

"Because we were going in one direction previously doesn't mean we shouldn't revisit where that's gotten us," Philip told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview. "And if it's not where we need to go, we need to look at where we should be going."

Armstrong also visited all the county health departments, during his second year as surgeon general.

The goal of this year's tour is to develop a new state strategic health plan for 2017 to 2020. Before the tour began, Philip said, she'd been talking informally with county health officials, having been one herself.

She's also been in touch with key lawmakers, including senators who questioned Armstrong during the confirmation fight.

For instance, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in February inquired about the drop in visits to county health departments, which he noted had fallen by 200,000 since Armstrong was appointed.

Gaetz, who voted to confirm Armstrong in the Senate Health Policy Committee, praised Philip's tour and said he'll continue to look for "objective metrics" on the prevention of disease and the treatment of illness

"And that's measured, in part, by visits," he said. "When those visits decline, services decline. What we've seen is an increase, for example, in the number of persons with AIDS and other communicable, sexually transmitted diseases."

Gaetz said he'll be watching for hard data to show that the county health departments are seeing the people who need their services.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, was also troubled by the juxtaposition of a decline in visits to the county health departments with the rise in new HIV infections. As a result, she voted with Democrats to block Armstrong's confirmation by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.

Flores said Friday she was "incredibly encouraged" by Philip's outreach efforts.

"I think the department heard loud and clear the concerns of the Legislature," she said.