Indiana health officials plead with Legislature not to overturn Holcomb veto

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Some of Indiana’s top public health leaders are pleading with the Legislature not to overturn Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill they say would dramatically weaken the authority of local health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officers of the Indiana Public Health Association and the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials on Friday held a video press conference to make their last-ditch case that the legislation would undermine their ability to respond to emergencies.

The Indiana General Assembly is scheduled to meet Monday in a one-day session. It is widely believed that lawmakers will hold a vote on overriding Holcomb’s veto of the bill, Senate Enrolled Act 5.

If lawmakers override the veto, any local orders to wear masks, set permitted capacity in bars and restaurants, or cap attendance at events would be swept away immediately, the health officials said.

That’s because those restrictions already have been lifted by the governor and, under the legislative proposal, local health departments couldn’t adopt more stringent orders without first receiving approval from the local legislative body.

“A veto override of Senate Bill 5 would have immediate consequences and place the health and safety of all Hoosiers in immediate jeopardy,” said Dr. Jeremy Adler, health officer of the Tippecanoe County Health Department and president of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents the physician health officers and public health professionals at the local level.

Holcomb issued the veto on Tuesday, saying it would undermine the balance between public health and the livelihood of Hoosiers.

Several counties, including Marion, Monroe, Tippecanoe and St. Joseph, now have restrictions in place that are more stringent than state restrictions. Holcomb had repeatedly allowed local health officials to impose more restrictive measures during the pandemic.

The officials said their biggest concern is the potential delay that the law could impose on the actions of local health departments, such as closing an unsafe restaurant or swimming pool during an emergency.

“One of the things I’ve found over the years in being a county health officer is these things often happen late at night, on weekends, on holidays, and we have to act quickly,” said Dr. David Welsh, health officer of the Ripley County Health Department.

The bill would allow local elected officials, few of whom have medical or health training, to overrule orders issued by a city or county health department during a public health emergency.

They pointed 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.

“Adding this additional layer of review by elected officials who don’t have the life experience or training to make these decisions is really dangerous,” said Susan Jo Thomas, past president of the Indiana Public Health Association, which represents several large hospitals, research institutions and public health organizations.

Throughout the pandemic, many Republicans have been 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.

The final version of the bill had passed the House by a vote of 65-29 and the Senate by a vote of 37-12. A veto override needs a simple majority of both houses.

The local health officials on Friday said they did not have a head count on how an override vote might go.

Under the legislation, a citizen or business affected by an order also could appeal the enforcement action directly in circuit or superior court or appeal to the legislative body that imposed the restriction.

“It’s certainly not a good idea to have 94 different ways of handling this appeal process,” Thomas said.

Indiana has 94 local health departments: 91 of the state’s 92 counties each has one; Warren and Fountain counties have a combined health department; and the cities of Fishers, Gary and East Chicago each have one.

“This bill unnecessarily burdens, in my opinion, our already overtaxed public health system and seriously hampers the ability of public health to serve the needs of the people,” said Paul Halverson, dean of the Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI.

He added: “We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and that’s an important thing to remind everyone. People are still dying of this disease. People are still being admitted to hospitals. … So I really hope our legislators will not rush into an override of the governor’s veto.”

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