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New bill tweaks who qualifies to lead Utah's Department of Health

Posted at 3:36 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 19:56:09-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced in the Utah State Legislature is tweaking the credentials for who can lead the Department of Health.

Senate Bill 6006, made public on Tuesday, would loosen the requirements for the executive director and leadership team. The bill allows for a medical "adviser."

"I don’t know that it’s necessary the executive director be a medical doctor, but it’s definitely necessary to have a medical doctor there making decisions. I think it’s just as important to have someone that has administrative skills that can help direct and make these decisions," said Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, who is one of the bill's sponsors.

Rep. Miles argued it was difficult to find someone who met all the necessary qualifications.

Under Utah law, the executive director does not need to be a medical doctor. However, they must have a master's degree in public health or at least seven years experience in public health. The law would loosen those requirements.

But the move has drawn some criticism from medical groups and other state lawmakers.

"We’re dealing with a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude and complexity. Now is not the time to lower the bar for leadership in the department of Health. It’s kind of a head scratcher to me," said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, a physician by profession.

Michelle McOmber, the executive director of the Utah Medical Association, said her group had concerns and was working with lawmakers on the bill.

"It’s a public health department. We are concerned and want to make sure good decisions are being made on behalf of public health," she told FOX 13. "As currently drafted, a medical adviser is nothing. We just want to make sure again, like any health department across the United States, there is a physician who is in a management position if it’s not the executive director."

Both Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health have physicians as CEOs, McOmber pointed out. Other organizations have physician boards.

Utah's Department of Health declined to comment on the bill. In a statement to FOX 13, Governor Gary Herbert's office signaled support for the bill.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest public health emergency of our lifetimes. Medical experts are crucial to the State’s response — but so are individuals with experience in leading large scale operations and organizations. This bill allows the Utah Department of Health to rely on both operational leaders and medical experts, instead of requiring individual heads of the departments to be experts in both leadership and medicine," said governor's spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt.

The governor has recently appointed Rich Saunders, an organizational and health care consultant, as interim director of UDOH. He replaced Major General Jefferson Burton, who also had no public health experience. Both men were appointed as acting directors of UDOH because Dr. Joseph Miner is only able to work from home because of a medical condition that makes him vulnerable to COVID-19.