Lawmakers to consider new health agency

The push to create an independent state agency for Public Health gained legislative steam with the introduction Thursday of a bill in the General Assembly.

The backers of House Bill 214 include prominent health leaders. They are led by Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and a legislator who has long been active on key health care issues.

Channell said in an interview that Gov. Nathan Deal supports the legislation, which would elevate Public Health to a Cabinet-level department with its own commissioner and board. A spokesman for Deal, Brian Robinson, said, “The governor sees the value in this idea.’’

Other sponsors include Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee; House Health Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Butch Parrish (R-Swainsboro); and Majority Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), who led a 2006 special House study committee that found major problems in the state’s public health system.

Channell said passage of the legislation would bring more attention to an area that has been overlooked for years.

“For over 30 years, this department has been embedded in a mammoth [state agency],’’ he said. “It got lost in terms of vision. Because of a lack of focus and proper attention, it has languished there.’’

Public Health has a long list of functions and duties — from giving health checkups to children to inspecting sewage systems.

But Public Health has absorbed millions of dollars of budget cuts in recent years, and an independent audit recently showed financial weaknesses in the unit. Meanwhile, Georgia has lagged other states on health indicators including obesity, cardiovascular disease and
infant mortality.

‘’As a population, we’re not nearly as healthy as we should be, and we trail the nation on just about any public health measure you can name,’’ Channell said in a statement.

Public Health is currently part of the Department of Community Health, which runs Medicaid, PeachCare and the State Health Benefit Plan, insurance programs that cover more than 2 million Georgians.

The bill would create a new department as of July 1.

Dozens of state agencies that are now independent would be smaller than Public Health if it becomes a stand-alone unit, Channell noted. It would make Public Health the 13th largest in terms of state funding, surpassing the current departments of Natural Resources, Labor and Agriculture, among others.

Earlier this week, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, a Carrollton ob/gyn, was named director of Public Health.

The bill to establish a stand-alone agency follows the recommendations of a study commission, whose chairman, UGA College of Public Health Dean Phillip Williams, praised the legislation in a statement.

“I know I speak for all the members of the Public Health Commission when I applaud Rep. Channell for his leadership on this issue, and I urge the General Assembly to follow his lead,” said Williams.

“We simply cannot expect Georgia’s public health situation to improve materially as long as a Division of Public Health remains buried in a larger department with a broader agenda and conflicting priorities,’’ Williams said. “ This is a critical first step on what will be a long road toward improving the public health status of the people of this state.”