After intermittent heated debates Tuesday night, Jacksonville City Council withdrew a controversial measure that would have removed a local requirement that the Duval County’s Department of Health director be a doctor.
The bill is expected to be reintroduced at a later date and sent to several council committees – only one discussed the original measure – for extensive discussion and public input.
“Let everyone involved talk about it,” said City Council President Tommy Hazouri. “I don’t know why it’s emotional … but it seems like it is.”
The draft law should help to fill the position of local director that has been vacant since 2018. The difficulty in hiring arises from a city ordinance that requires the department head to be a doctor and not just have a public health education, but the only such mandate in the state, according to Stephanie Burch, the city’s deputy administrative director.
The proposed legislation stipulated that the director should be a county health officer who would be either a doctor or health professional trained in public health administration with a master’s degree in public health or other health sciences, or with a master’s degree in public health. Degree and a broad public is health experience.
A doctor is already employed in the Duval department, the medical director Pauline Rolle.
Doctors against it
Still, many local doctors opposed the change, calling on council members to do so in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Doctors said Jacksonville was a large city with diverse populations and public health issues, from the ongoing pandemic and violence to food deserts and substance abuse that require a doctor to lead local health efforts.
“An administrator won’t have the vision,” said Sunil Joshi, doctor who directs the Duval County Medical Society Foundation.
Emergency Physician Elizabeth DeVos, president of the Duval County Medical Society, recognized the “short-term benefit” of the bill. But she said it would not “promote the health of our city” in the long run.
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The council members had mixed opinions. Some asked for more time to ponder the effects.
“This is not a new argument. Does a pharmacist have to run a pharmacy?” said Alderman Ron Salem, a pharmacist who runs a long-term care pharmacy. “This is an argument that goes on all the time. … I would like more discussions. This is a difficult one.”
Alderman Aaron Bowman, a retired naval captain, was once the commanding officer of Mayport Naval Station. He said the clinic there, which served thousands, was run by an administrator. The proposed legislation, he said, “makes a lot of sense.”
Councilor Michael Boylan added that the proposed bill “does not preclude” hiring a doctor, but merely provides the option not to do so.
Council members also discussed the suggestion from local doctors that the city should add to the director’s salary to attract a larger pool of candidates. Burch and Deputy Health Secretary Mark Landers said there was no mechanism for this – the director is a state position with state-set and funded salary – and it would be unfair to other counties.
Burch also asked why none of the local doctors affected had not applied for the position. The salary range is between $ 140,000 and $ 160,000.
“It has been published three times in the past three years,” she said.
According to Landers, some counties have doctors who run their health departments through contracts with nearby medical universities who pay the salary. “We can have a discussion” that Duval has such an agreement, he said. “We can take a look at this.”
Councilor Brenda Priestly Jackson said the “state set the floor, not … the cap” of wages. “I think the problem is funding,” she said.
Hazouri recommended postponing the action for two weeks to allow the council committees, which choose to give more time to consider the matter. This idea annoyed councilors who were not given time at Tuesday’s meeting to speak on the matter.
The resulting high levels of emotion prompted Councilor Randy White, accounting sponsor and chairman of the Neighborhood, Community, Public Health and Safety Committee, which approved him on April 19, to request a withdrawal.
“You will find out,” he said to Hazouri.
The withdrawal vote was 18-1, with Councilor Rory Diamond disagreeing. He gave no reason publicly.
The last permanent director of Duval’s Department of Health was Doctor Kelli Wells, who was transferred in 2018 after an investigation by the Inspector General found she violated ethics laws in hiring a cousin. She has been director of the county’s health ministry since 2013 and deputy director of the state since 2017.
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Since then, the department has been headed by a number of interim directors from other areas of the public health system. The current interim director is Heather Huffman, Clay County’s health administrator.
According to Peggy Sidman, an attorney with the Jacksonville Office of General Counsel, the county health department is governed by Florida law that was amended in the mid-1990s to allow the director to become a doctor or administrator. But the city ordinance code was not changed to reflect the change, she said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109, [email protected]