State surgeon general looking forward to rocky confirmation hearing
This morning could be the end of the road for Dr. John Armstrong's confirmation.
After an Ethics and Elections Committee hearing at 8:30, the state surgeon general could be headed to a floor vote in the Senate, or Gov. Rick Scott could be faced with replacing his hand-picked appointee to run the Department of Health.
The surgeon general, who has faced harsh criticism and tough questions through the session as senators repeatedly delayed his confirmation, says he is looking forward to the Ethics and Elections Committee hearing.
"I think I have an opportunity to share some thoughts about where this department is with Ethics and Elections and answer questions, and I remain grateful for the opportunity," Armstrong said in an interview with the Times/Herald on Monday.
Since last week, when a vote on Armstrong's confirmation was most recently postponed because there wasn't enough support in the committee, Scott's office has been lobbying hard to confirm the governor's appointee.
In a rare move for a confirmation battle, Scott's office and the state Department of Health, which Armstrong runs, sent letters of support from various health care groups. On Monday, Scott and Armstrong sat down in the Capitol with lobbyists from some of those groups, including the Florida Medical Association, the Cancer Action Network and the Florida Public Health Association.
The meeting's purpose was for Armstrong to highlight his work as surgeon general since Scott first appointed him in 2012.
"The agenda involved looking at where we are now with health in the state and thinking about next steps," Armstrong said.
They talked about cancer, Armstrong's signature healthy weight initiative and making "healthy choices."
"And," he said, "we talked about our progress in working to eliminate HIV disease in the state."
The AIDS Health Care Foundation, whose lobbyist David Poole was in attendance at the Scott meeting, has been vocal in it support for Armstrong recently. But less than two months ago, Poole said the rise in HIV, especially in South Florida, can be attributed in part to the fact that Armstrong and Scott don't talk much about the disease.
Since 2012, the year Armstrong took office, HIV has been on the rise in Florida, even as it has fallen nationwide. Florida now has more new infections than any other state. In that same time, cutbacks to the state's county health departments have left them with fewer staff and fewer patient visits.
That very issue could be make-or-break for Armstrong this morning. A crucial swing vote on the Ethics and Elections Committee rests with Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who said last week that she hasn't been convinced by the surgeon general's insistence that other charitable clinics have increased their workload as DOH clinics have shrunk.
With all four Democrats on the 10-person committee likely to oppose Armstrong and six favorable votes required for him to pass, Flores is key.
Poole, however, said he's been pleased to see Armstrong focus more on the disease in the month since Times/Herald reporting highlighted the trends in HIV infections and health department cuts. The bigger fear now, he said, is that Scott could appoint someone to the job who pays even less attention to the disease.
"We're very concerned about who might succeed him," he said.
Other issues are also sure to come up, including the Children's Medical Services program, which last year cut about 9,000 sick kids from its coverage plan and gutted quality standards for pediatric heart surgery programs. Additionally, DOH has drawn criticism for a two-year delay in implementing a state law meant to give some patients access to medical marijuana low in high-inducing THC.
Armstrong said he has met with senators to answer their questions and that he feels the conversations have gone well.
"I think they've been productive, and I remain committed to working with the Legislature to continue to move health forward in the state of Florida," he said.
Scott remains committed to his surgeon general. The governor appointed Armstrong, then a top medical official at the University of South Florida, in 2012. He's one of the longest-serving heads of an agency under Scott.
In a statement defending the surgeon general Monday, the governor pointed out that Armstrong is currently battling cancer, echoing comments he made all last week. But he also highlighted the state's responses to Ebola and Zika, which prompted emergency declarations from Scott while infecting zero and 42 people respectively.
"Dr. John Armstrong is a fighter. Not only is he currently fighting against colon cancer, but he has continued to fight for the well-being of everyone in our state - whether it is against epidemics like Ebola and Zika, or illnesses like cancer or AIDS that are still affecting far too many in our state," Scott said.
Armstrong would not say what he thinks the committee vote will be. But, he said, he's hoping to stay on the job.
"We've made a lot of progress in the last three years," Armstrong said, "and I'm hopeful to continue."