HELENA — The Montana House is considering a bill that would make decisions by local health boards in response to crises subject to approval by elected officials.
Under existing Montana law, the boards, which are appointed by elected officials, have the authority to issue rules to address public health crises, including the pandemic. The bill would give county and city commissioners the power to amend or rescind those rules.
Proponents of the bill said during a committee hearing Thursday that it would restore confidence in public health edicts. Opponents said allowing elected officials to intervene in health board decisions could allow politics to overpower science in decisions regarding urgent health concerns.
The bill comes after months of angst among some Montana residents over what they have called arbitrary and unfair health mandates that have led some business to close. Some local health officials in Montana have resigned after encountering a lack of support from elected officials for their efforts to curb the virus.
Cindi Hamilton, an owner of a horseback riding business, said many small businesses have been “completely killed by the whim of power-drunk county health officers.”
Matt Kelley, public health officer for Gallatin County, said the pandemic has led to “traumatic, excruciating adversity” for local health officers and boards of health.
“It is somewhat painful and discouraging to hear those efforts demonized by people who are calling us ‘power thirsty’ because the people who go into public health and the people who volunteer to serve on boards of health are almost always motivated by the spirit of public service,” Kelley said.
County and city commissions appoint local health board members, and have the power to remove them, meaning they already have input into the public health process, Kelley said.
“If what we’re after is local control, (it) already exists in every county in the state of Montana,” Kelley said.
Margaret Novak, a property owner in Great Falls, spoke in favor of the bill, saying, “I would no more ask a county commissioner to determine policy with respect to the health care of me and my neighbors, than I would ask my physician to take care of getting the road plowed up to the Canadian border north of town.”
Bill sponsor Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said the intention of the bill is not to strip health officials of their power. Instead, he said it is meant to restore the public’s confidence in the work of health boards.
“The legitimacy of our constitutional government is under attack nowadays,” Bedey said. “This particular bill is a modest effort to shore up the legitimacy of the hard work that our public health officials are doing.”
The House Local Government Committee is expected to vote on the bill next week.
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