INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Public Health Association hosted a press conference Friday to express members’ strong opposition to a senate bill they say would have “dangerous consequences on several fronts” if it passes.
Co-authored by Sen. Jon Ford and sponsored by Rep. Alan Morrison, the bill would limit a local health department’s powers in the event of a state-declared emergency. The bill provides language stating that if a local order “addresses an aspect of a declared emergency more stringently” than a state order, it cannot take effect without approval of the local legislative body.
“The overall universal reason why we’re doing it is for oversight and accountability. I think what we saw the last 12-14 months or so has opened our eyes to the power the executive branch has, and two, the power of our health department whether it be local or state,” Morrison said.
Dr. Alan Stuart with the Knox County Health Department is against the bill. At times, Knox County was under stricter guidelines compared to what was recommended by the state of Indiana.
“Often times difficult decisions and unpopular decisions are ones that have to be made in difficult times. Those are the decisions that our governor is making, our state health department is making, and we as county health officers are making as well,” Stewart said.
Some of those decisions included delaying the return to visitors in long-term care facilities compared to nearby counties.
“Guided by facts, science and a single-minded mission to keep communities healthy, public health officials and medical, nursing and hospital partners take very seriously the responsibility to protect human health and the important balancing act between science, economic impact and personal freedoms,” The IPHA said in a statement.
Those who support the bill, which passed the senate in a 40-8 vote in February, say it would improve local accountability during a state-declared emergency.
“I believe the mentality of that the mentality of the bill is simply a disconnect between science and wants and, the wants are such that we are being told by some the science that we believe is true, is not true,” Stewart said.
Morrison acknowledges the work public health departments have done since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but believes other elements need to be evaluated before any decision or order is made.
“Nobody is going to argue that health and safety is important, but there are other reasons and things to think about before we make those steps; that’s the local economy, the effect on schools, the effect on mental health, there’s a lot of moving parts,” Morrison said.
Morrison believes this piece of legislature and others will reinforce a checks and balances system.
“Many of our local health departments have acted admirably during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their work should not go unrecognized,” Sen. Chris Garten, who authored the bill, said. “However, the reality is that appointed health departments, rather than locally elected officials, are making decisions that impact Hoosier small businesses and their livelihood. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and through no fault of their own have faced the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Bill 5 allows our health departments to continue their critically important mission of keeping Hoosiers healthy and safe, while leaving the responsibility of enforcement in the hands of the men and women our communities elect.”
During Friday’s press conference, public health officials provided an overview of the bill, explained why they oppose the legislation and provided information on how Hoosiers can support efforts to stop it.