We Need to Define Local Health Departments’ Power

One of the many things we have learned throughout this year with the pandemic is that our current health department system is not equipped or funded to provide pandemic guidance. Much of the bureaucracy with state and local health departments was created over 100 years ago, when leaders could have never foreseen something like COVID-19. I see this as an enormous problem that needs to get fixed as soon as possible.

Earlier this month I filed SB 56, which relates to public health. Currently, this is our system: County commissions and county health boards have the authority to make and promulgate public health orders, ordinances, rules, and regulations relating to infectious, contagious, communicable, or dangerous diseases in the county, subject to certain limitations. The key part there is “county commissions and county health boards” because, in some instances, these health boards are not elected. The bill I filed removes authority from county health boards.

This year we have seen the result of utilizing a statute that is decades old and not designed to be used in the way it currently is. We have 114 counties in Missouri, and we currently have about as many ways of interpreting this law. Health Departments are not designed to determine winners and losers in an economic sense, though that is the result of current practice. I believe Health Departments need to operate within controlled settings and any time decisions are made about economic well being it should be done by those who answer to the voters.

Many of my colleagues in the legislature are filing legislation with the same goal in mind: Limiting the power of health departments. Senator Andrew Koenig from St. Louis filed similar legislation to my bill. There are a ton of problems in St. Louis with how they have shut down businesses, especially restaurants. It is absolutely devastating our economy, and a local health department should not be picking winners and losers.

A perfect example of what can happen came to my attention in a Facebook post on December 28th from Truman’s Bar & Grill in Columbia (where the health department has also greatly overused its power):

“[They] Told us the complaint was from Saturday 12/26. After asking us to sign the report said they were wrong, and that it was from Christmas Eve. [A] Second ‘inspector’ piped in and said it was from Tuesday. Then the other said, wait no, Wednesday. Wrote 12/23 on the official report. We asked for clarification on the wording of the complaint and the actual date in order to convene with the appropriate employees. The answer? ‘You can file a sunshine law request.’ Where is the Health Department’s oversight committee? Who is their governing body? Why does the police department have a Citizen’s Review Board, but this new “policing” agency does not?”

The health board is not a police department, but if they are going to file complaints and act like one, they need to at least know the simple details like the date of the complaint. This is getting out of control, and I am sure that it’s happening more often and in more places than I have been informed of. What starts as a complaint can also easily turn into a shutdown, and then the health department has decided which businesses can succeed and which ones can’t.

Education reform and advancement is my top priority. However, this is just as big of a problem, and it impacts our schools as well because of the health department’s involvement in school openings. Some health departments have been very instrumental in keeping schools shut down, refusing to acknowledge schools can operate safely. I am going to do all that I can to make sure that at the very least people who are making these important decisions are elected and can be held accountable.

Please remember that health departments do a lot of work to provide essential services to the public. They have always been and will continue to be an integral part of our communities. However, they neither asked for, nor have the expertise to be rulers of our economy. Early on in the pandemic many

asked for guidance from the state health department and received very little assistance. I appreciate their tireless commitment and efforts to fulfill their responsibilities in the face of lots of adversity.

As always, I appreciate hearing your perspective on this and other issues presented in my weekly column. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-7985. You may also email me at [email protected]

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