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Bill removing some powers from county boards of health moving in General Assembly
ATLANTA — Legislation that would take away the power of county boards of health to appoint local health directors and give it to the state public health commissioner cleared a Georgia House committee Tuesday.
Under current law, Commissioner Kathleen Toomey selects directors of each of the state’s 18 health districts, Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 256, told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
But county officials hold veto power over the commissioner’s choices, Burke said. That becomes time consuming in the larger districts, which contain up to 20 counties, he said.
“It’s very unwieldy to have to meet with every county to get approval of her choices,” Burke said. “We’re giving the commissioner the power to hire who she wants to work with.”
But David Will, a lawyer representing the Lawrenceville-based health district that includes Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties, said the bill would take away all local governance the health districts have enjoyed for 50 years.
“It has worked well. There’s no reason to change it, especially during a pandemic,” he said. “We don’t need a cookie-cutter approach to dictate how each director is selected.”
Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the committee’s chairman, disagreed with Will’s assessment. While she praised the work of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health district, she said other districts around the state have been uncooperative.
Cooper said some districts have rejected telemedicine as a treatment option, refused to provide prenatal care and balked at other state directives, including a mandate that patients getting flu shots wait 15 minutes before leaving a clinic.
“We have pockets of really functioning areas, but those are very few,” she said. “We need some oversight.”
Sherwin Levinson, executive director of Metro Reserve Corps East Metro, a volunteer organization that supplements the public health services the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health district delivers, suggested the legislation exempt districts that are nationally accredited.
“Some of our health districts are not working,” he said. “Don’t hurt the ones that are working and have at the ones that don’t.”
The original bill Burke introduced in the Senate would have given the state much broader powers over local health districts, including their ability to make their own rules.
“The broader reorganization is still needed,” Burke said Tuesday. “This is a baby step in that direction.”

The Senate passed the bill last week 37-14, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue. It now moves to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote in that chamber.