The bill also required local legislative bodies to approve the appointment of health officers, and enabled them to remove them for good cause. Likewise, a health officer would need approval from a legislative body to go to court to enforce an order if needed, another step opponents worried could slow the process. Holcomb’s veto led to celebration among public health officials in St. Joseph County.
“(Local health officers) and their departments must frequently make urgent, complex decisions to safeguard public health where time is of the essence and expertise is critical,” Holcomb said in his letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray. Holcomb argued this act would “restrict necessarily flexibility in the law, and further undermine local responses to future public health emergencies.”
Senate Bill 5 also would have allowed people to appeal local health department actions to the local legislative body during an emergency. Senate Bill 5 would have required any local health orders more stringent than Holcomb’s during an emergency to be approved by the local legislative bodies and, in the case of local cities, by the mayor.
But supporters of the bill have said unelected health officers have overstepped by issuing mandates with no say from voters. “I think the elected officials should have a say in what happens,” St. Joseph County Commissioner Derek Dieter previously told The Tribune. “The doctors, on paper, are supposed to know the facts, but if you’ve followed this thing, since day one, there’s been shifts in the data and facts that are reported.” Beidinger-Burnett and other public health officials said they feared putting emergency orders in the hands of elected officeholders would lead to decisions driven by politics rather than science.
“This is wonderful news,” said Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the county Board of Health. “We need people who have education and experience in working at and with health departments making decisions, and I believe our governor understands that because of his experience working with the state health dept in this time of COVID.” “Important support for public health!” Dr. Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health officer, tweeted in response to the news.
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