Surgeon general John Armstrong's confirmation uncertain
Dr. John Armstrong’s confirmation as surgeon general is uncertain after a Senate committee on Tuesday postponed a hearing.
Armstrong needs the support of five members of the state Senate’s Health Policy Committee for his confirmation to advance. But with three Democrats and three Republicans asking serious questions about Armstrong’s time in office, Gov. Rick Scott’s top health appointee is in a precarious position.
“I think the votes were uncertain,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is one of the key undecided votes in Armstrong’s confirmation. She cited Times/Herald reporting last week that showed rising HIV infections since Armstrong was first appointed to run the Department of Health in 2012.
“I have serious concerns when it comes to cutting staff when it relates to HIV cases and then seeing those HIV cases go up dramatically,” Flores said.
Senators want one-on-one meetings with the surgeon general to clear up their concerns, she said.
The disease’s spread has been particularly dramatic in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which in 2014 led the nation for new infections per 100,000 residents.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said he’s supportive “for now” but would like Armstrong to address those same concerns.
Gaetz last week sent a letter to Armstrong outlining seven questions, mostly about rising HIV infections and cuts to the county health departments.
In a response Monday, Armstrong wrote that “reductions have no impact on critical services.” He acknowledged that some county health departments have stopped providing primary care and instead contract with other local providers.
Health Policy chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said he postponed the vote on Armstrong because there was not enough time in the committee’s scheduled meeting Tuesday. He said it could take an hour or more for senators to have their questions answered, and because of a controversial abortion bill on the committee’s agenda, the surgeon general’s confirmation was delayed.
But, Bean said, he isn’t worried Armstrong won’t be confirmed.
“I think we have the votes to pass,” he said. “We want full consideration and time, so even though we could pass him in a couple minutes, my committee members want time to be able to talk to him and have a dialogue.”
If Armstrong does not get confirmed by the full Senate this session, he will lose his $141,000-a-year job. The Health Policy Committee is the first step in that process.
Last year, the Senate failed to approve Armstrong’s confirmation because of answers he gave to questions about Medicaid expansion. Gaetz delayed the vote, and the Health Policy committee never invited him back for a new hearing. Prior to his appointment in 2012, Armstrong was a top medical officer at the University of South Florida.
In addition to questions about HIV rates, Armstrong has been under the gun for his department’s handling of Children’s Medical Services, a health coverage program for the state’s sickest kids.
Last year, the Department of Health started using a new screening tool for CMS that resulted in more than 9,000 children being removed from coverage.
And DOH moved to gut regulations for pediatric heart surgery, which Senate Democrats have criticized. Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who sits on the Health Policy committee wrote a letter to Armstrong on Jan. 15 demanding changes.
“For the sake of the children of Florida,” she wrote, “this letter is to demand that you immediately rescind your decision and reinstitute the quality standards for pediatric heart surgeries.”