Bill Focuses on Health Officers’ Employment Process

Legislation is pending to reform the process for hiring and firing local health officers, who generally serve in a hybrid role with county appointment but state approval.  MACo initially opposed the bill ass too prescriptive, but has been working toward amendments to make its processes more manageable.

The House Health and Government Operations Committee held a hearing Tuesday on HB 874. The bill originally sought to require each county to create a committee to that includes representatives of the governing body as well as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) to recruit, evaluate, and nominate a health officer within 60 days of a vacancy occurring. The bill also altered the removal process by including provisions that the health officer may be removed for cause by either the governing body or the Secretary. Finally, the bill would require that any meetings or information concerning the removal of a health officer would be closed and confidential.

Under the current process for selecting a health officer, the health officer is nominated by the governing body of a county and appointed by the Secretary of DHMH. The governing body for each county has full autonomy to determine the nominating process. The Secretary may reject the nomination if the nominee does not meet the qualifications required, such as degree, experience or training. The health officer then serves at the pleasure of the governing body of the county and the Secretary and may only be removed with the agreement of both parties.

MACo was opposed to the bill as introduced (see MACo’s testimony online), and offered its opposition testimony at the hearing on March 4. It removed the autonomy of the governing body in nominating a health officer and there were concerns about a one-size-fits all nature of the proposed hiring process. The 60 day provision did not leave enough time to find a replacement. And it was problematic to have the Secretary serve on the nomination committee and then have the ultimate ability to reject the nomination. The removal process imposed a higher standard for the removal of a health officer and it created a process where the health officer could be removed unilaterally by either the Secretary or the governing body even if the other party did not agree.

However, after working with the lead sponsor of the bill and stakeholders from DHMH as well as the local health officers, amendments were introduced that significantly pared down the effects of the bill.  Under the amended bill, the removal of a health officer would remain a joint decision between the governing body and the Secretary, and the health officer would continue to serve at the pleasure of those parties. A committee would still be formed to address a vacancy but the Secretary would no longer serve as a member of the committee, instead a representative from DHMH would serve on the committee. The 60 day provision would also be removed. The amended bill retained the closed meeting and confidentiality provisions.

Following the hearing, MACo’s Legislative Committee met and considered the amended bill. The Committee moved to support the amended bill with additional proposed amendments. MACo’s amendments sought to clarify that the role of the governing body in the hiring process and to address situations in which the health officer and local health department had a unique role within local government that was not compatible with the proposed committee process. Please read MACo’s position letter to learn more about the amendments and their purpose.