Surgeon General John Armstrong this week faces his first Senate confirmation vote, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is preparing to ask some tough questions.
Gaetz gave Gov. Rick Scott’s top health official a heads-up in a letter sent Friday on seven questions that could come up Tuesday morning when the Health Policy committee decides if Armstrong should keep his $141,000-a-year job. At the heart of them are position cuts in the Department of Health and in county health departments, which Armstrong oversees, even as diseases like HIV grow in Florida.
Since 2012, when Armstrong was appointed, the number of positions in DOH has decreased from 17,107 to 14,358. Scott is asking for an additional 718 cuts next year.
Over that same period of time, HIV infections have risen dramatically in Florida, even as they fell nationwide. Miami-Dade and Broward counties now lead the nation in new HIV cases per 100,000 residents. In the letter, Gaetz asks Armstrong to clarify that data, as well.
And he wants more information about the subject Armstrong most often talks about: obesity, which some advocates say he has focused on to the detriment of disease prevention.
“You have clearly and persuasively articulated your goal of reducing childhood and adult obesity … Is there data available that shows the positive impact of your efforts,” Gaetz wrote.
Many of the jobs that could be cut are what Gaetz calls “phantom positions,” which means they’re jobs that aren’t currently filled but are left on the books in the state budget. And many of the cuts during Scott and Armstrong’s tenure have hit county health departments that serve poor communities and those without insurance.
“Even with the governor’s extraordinary success in promoting a million private sector jobs, there are still large numbers of persons looking for work or training for jobs and, at present, are without health coverage,” Gaetz wrote. “What is the appropriate source of primary care for these individuals who otherwise have to rely upon either the county health departments or free/charitable clinics?”
Gaetz is one of six Republicans and three Democrats on the Senate Health Policy committee, which failed to confirm Armstrong last year.
Times Tallahassee Bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this post.