1. Opinion

Column: Why I support the Florida Department of Health and its surgeon general

Published Mar. 7, 2016

I read with concern the Tampa Bay Times' editorial on Friday ("Florida needs new top doctor") in which a number of issues with state Surgeon General John Armstrong and the Department of Health's programs were noted. As a previous secretary of the Florida Department of Health from 1999 through 2001, I respectfully disagree with the editors and would like to bring to the readers' attention several important reasons why I believe the Florida Senate would be wise to reconsider its position and reconfirm Dr. Armstrong.

The role of public health programs has traditionally been to protect the people of the state and to promote health with ever-broadening responsibilities and often fewer resources, both financial and personnel, than are needed. Recent years have been no exception. As the recent outbreak of the Zika virus has shown, public health must be prepared to respond to emergencies that affect the public.

I have been impressed by how the surgeon general and the department have taken a proactive approach to minimizing the danger to the public from this disease. This same protective approach has also been taken with recent outbreaks of Ebola virus, Chikungunya virus and dengue virus, to name a few public health risks. To mobilize public health and educate Florida's public correctly requires real leadership. Changing leadership in the midst of the Zika virus outbreak — which is likely to increase before it improves — may not be wise for the state.

I have also been impressed with Armstrong's and the department's emphasis on the obesity epidemic — a major public health problem leading to countless years of life lost and hundreds of millions of dollars in costs. In recent years the surgeon general has actively led efforts across the state to bring attention and resources to this growing problem. Continuing those efforts and building on them are worthy goals of public health and the department.

The editorial also mentions the sobering statistics about the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Florida. The increasing HIV rates in certain sectors of the population are certainly concerning and require increased attention. In fact, some of the increase in finding of HIV cases is exactly because Florida leads the nation in the number of HIV tests performed with more than 375,000 tests completed in 2015. It should be noted that the numbers of AIDS cases has generally been decreasing over the last 10 to 15 years, meaning those with HIV are generally living longer lives, and Florida has been recently spending more money on HIV/AIDS than ever.

The editorial mentions several other public policy issues of importance, and there is no doubt that the department still has work to do with regard to restoring the public's confidence in its ability to maximally meet the public health needs of the state.

I have known Armstrong for many years and worked with him while he was a leader before his time as surgeon general. We worked together on issues of bioterrorism after the state was rocked by anthrax in 2001, and I also saw his leadership in setting up the innovative medical and leadership programs at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation while we were both professors at USF.

I am confident he has the vision and abilities to meet the goals of the department to promote and protect the health of the people of Florida in the coming years.

Dr. Robert G. Brooks served as secretary of the Florida Department of Health from 1999 through 2001. He has just published a textbook on the Affordable Care Act.