Senate leadership is reviewing requests by Democrats to delve into the growing political spud that sprouted from the closing of A.G. Holley in Lantana, the states only tuberculosis hospital.
Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, who is campaigning to challenge Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, on Thursday called for the Senate to look into the closing and the release of information regarding a separate tuberculosis outbreak in the Jacksonville area.
And Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray, pitted through redistricting in a difficult re-election battle with Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, wants Gov. Rick Scott to halt the closure until a review can be conducted.
While no direct responses have been made from the Senate presidents office, the proposals are being evaluated by Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Senator Gaetz is reviewing Sen. Richs letter as well as the facts surrounding this issue, responded Katie Betta, Gaetzs spokeswoman.
In the meantime, the governor's office and the state Department of Health steadfastly maintain that alarm bells are unneeded, that the tuberculosis "outbreak" was dealt with in very much a transparent and open manner by public health officials in Jacksonville, and that A.G. Holley was a facility for the most severe of all TB patients, not for those discovered in Duval County. It was also the last tuberculosis hospital in the nation, not just in Florida, still open.
During the 2012 legislative session, citing a decline in tuberculosis cases in Florida since 2010, lawmakers passed a bill to close A.G. Holley on March 9. Scott signed the bill April 27.
But on April 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released a report saying that in Duval County, Florida was suffering one of the largest uncontained TB outbreaks in 20 years. It was also the largest TB spike nationwide. And as a result, 13 people died and 99 others, mostly among the homeless, had contracted the illness. The CDC estimated 3,000 people had been exposed.
Lane Wright, the governor's press secretary, noted that the state Department of Health, based on the CDC report, crafted a coalition of community organizations, local government representatives, and service providers to update the public on the outbreak and to work on its containment.
"In a nutshell, the state has worked closely with the CDC to implement all of its recommendations and get health professionals on the ground in the community," Wright stated in an emailed response. "The CDC never recommended forming a task force of government bureaucrats to sit and study the issue."
Rich asked Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, to set up the independent probe because of conflicting media accounts on just what was known and when the information was made available.
Not only is this exposure a public health threat, but the ability of a state agency to circumvent the transparency which is supposed to govern our legislative process is troubling at best, Rich stated in a release that was posted on the Senate Web page.
The bottom line is that the public was not made aware nor were lawmakers, including myself, tasked with making programmatic and fiscal decisions about public health. And I believe it is now incumbent upon the Senate, with its investigative authority, to undertake a thorough probe of the events leading up to the hospitals closure and the risk to the public at large.
Rich has recommended a committee be authorized to investigate the outbreak; why the closing of A.G. Holley was moved up; if the closure saved tax dollars; and to project the cost of containment and treatment due to the closing of the hospital.
With potentially thousands of lives at stake, the need for immediate action is critical, Rich stated. In order to prevent such an occurrence in the future, we need to better understand what occurred. Convening this committee will allow you to enforce the legislative transparency that should have been exercised all along.
Sachs was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying the vote might have come out differently on HB 1263 had legislators been informed of the outbreak.
"It's a serious thing when a major fact is withheld from us, Sachs was quoted as saying in the British newspaper. There needs to be an inquiry into whoever kept this secret and there needs to be an inquiry into why there was such a rush to close the hospital. The governor should stop everything, stop the closure and have a review. This is a dangerous thing and we need to make sure our people are safe."
The House voted 86-29 to support the closing, while the Senate voted in favor in a 31-9 vote, opposed by Sachs and Rich.
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.