All eyes on Holcomb’s decision on bill that would allow local officials to overrule health officers

Two of the largest health organizations in Indiana are pleading with Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto a bill they say would hamper the ability of local health officials to respond to emergencies.

The legislation is Senate Enrolled Act 5, which passed both houses of the Indiana Legislature last week and is now awaiting Holcomb’s signature or veto.

The bill would allow local elected officials to overrule orders issued by a city or county health department during a public health emergency.

The final version of the bill passed the House by a vote of 65-29 and the Senate by a vote of 37-12.

Republican lawmakers characterize the bill as a way to allow local officials to have checks and balances over health departments when health officials impose restrictions on citizens during emergencies. Many were unhappy when local officials sometimes imposed stricter conditions than the state during the pandemic.

But many Democratic lawmakers said the bill would weaken the authority of health officials, who need to act quickly during emergencies.

A spokeswoman for Holcomb said he is still reviewing the bill.

Under the bill, if the governor declares an emergency as an executive order, local health departments can’t adopt more stringent orders without first receiving approval from the local legislative body.

A citizen or business affected by an order can appeal the enforcement action directly in circuit or superior court or appeal to the legislative body that imposed the restriction.

Holcomb has repeatedly allowed local governments to impose more restrictive measures during the pandemic. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and the Marion County Health Department have continuously done so, as have some other counties.

But SEA 5 would give the Indianapolis City-County Council the ultimate authority over restrictions called for by the health department or the mayor if those restrictions are more stringent than the governor’s orders.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, has said the pandemic revealed the important role of local health administrators, but also said the legislation would rightly put them under the responsibility of local elected officials who are closer to the public during health emergencies.

The Indiana Public Health Association, which represents several hospitals, health departments and medical organizations, and the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents the physician health officers and public health professionals at the local level, are pushing Holcomb to veto the bill.

They point out that every local health department already has citizen representation on it, and that adding an extra layer of oversight would just slow down the reaction time during a health emergency.

“If you’ve got someone that has hepatitis working at restaurant, you need to be able to get that employee out of the workplace and treated,” Susan Jo Thomas, past president of the Indiana Public Health Association and executive director of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana, told IBJ.

She added: “That needs to be almost immediate, or you’re going to have a big spread.” The same is true, she said, if deadly bacteria is found in a local swimming pool.

Dr. Jeremy Adler, health officer for Tippecanoe County and president of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials, said the pandemic showed the need for swift action during outbreaks.

“What we witnessed during the pandemic is that during public health emergencies, quick action is often needed to prevent disease and save lives,” Adler told IBJ. “And local health departments need to have the ability to take action and tailor their measures to the specific needs of the population they serve.”

The groups say they are apprehensive of the transfer of major public health decisions to elected officials, most of whom lack the expertise needed to properly engage in unusually complex public health subject and regulatory matters.

They say another major concern is shifting local health enforcement appeals processes from courts to city and county boards. This would require significant additional infrastructure on the city and county level and would also add another cumbersome layer for public health officials to navigate.

“Our local boards of health and local health officers are actually appointed and entrusted to act based on data and science and in the best interest of their communities,” Adler said. “So this bill really could jeopardize the health and safety of Hoosiers.”

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