TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb could soon have to consider Senate Bill 5, dealing with health emergencies and the authority of health departments and their officers, which has drawn some criticism from health officials.
Senate Bill 5 has four main pieces. One aspect that has drawn concern deals with local health departments and public health emergencies. Health departments would need approval from their local city or county legislative body in order to create stricter measures than outlined in executive orders.
For example, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor has said a local health department can set stricter capacity limits or mask rules than his executive order. Senate Bill 5 would require approval from a county or city body to put those stricter measures in place.
Other components of the bill deal with the hiring and firing of health officials. An appointment of a county health officer would be subject to approval by the county legislative body. The legislation also adds 'good cause' to the reasons a local health officer may be removed in counties other than Marion County.
The last piece of the legislation sets up an appeals process for businesses that have grievances with enforcement actions taken by local health departments in response to declared state and local public health emergencies. It would shift the process from courts to local governing bodies.
The Indiana Public Health Association held a virtual press event Friday afternoon. Several health stakeholders participated. The organization said, "This is an extremely important issue for all Hoosiers and has potential to significantly damage public health in our state."
"Indiana Senate Bill 5 would be a dangerous experiment that Hoosiers would soon regret," said Dr. Jeremy Adler, President of Indiana Association for County and City Health Officials. "Without a doubt, Senate Bill 5 will negatively affect the ability of local health departments to protect their communities."
Dr. David Welch, Health Officer of Ripley County, said the legislation goes beyond the bounds of the coronavirus pandemic response and adds layers of government involvement to what already exists. "Public health is a thing not a lot of people are familiar with until it touches them, but a lot of times when public health officials have to act, it's not something that 'maybe we should do something in a week or so,' it's typically something that has to be done right away."
Speakers raised concerns that addressing routine problems, like code violations at restaurants, could be delayed - ultimately putting the public at risk for possible disease. Legislative supporters say that isn't the case.
State Representative Alan Morrison of Indiana's 42nd District is a co-sponsor of the legislation. He says the bill is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and aims to create a system of checks and balances.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the legislative body having an active role in determining the restrictions that are going to be put on their constituents," said Morrison. He told News 10 the authors of the bill don't want to hold up routine operations of local health departments. Morrison explained that day-to-day operations fall under a different part of the law than what this bill is targeting.
"Public health is extremely important, nobody wants to put anybody at risk," said Morrison. "What we have seen this entire process over the last 14 months we've all lived through, is some of the powers the executive branch and unelected bureaucrats have are greater than what some of us had really understood."
Some speakers at the IPHA conference agreed that public health needs to be addressed in Indiana, but said it requires health officials, lawmakers, and community members to work together to come up with solutions.
"I feel like a whole bunch of us in this last year-plus, as citizens, feel like our voices have not been heard one way or another. So, putting this in front of our locally elected officials I think we do just that," said Morrison when asked about the potential of health decisions becoming political. "At the same time, we are not prohibiting or trying to stop any sort of public health measures. We just want to make sure it gets in front of other sets of eyes before making it any more stringent than the emergency orders have said."
Rep. Morrison said the Senate has to concur with the House on Senate Bill 5 before it heads to the governor's desk.
Several bills were filed in both chambers dealing with different limitations of government when it comes to public health emergencies. Among them is House Bill 1123, which Governor Holcomb vetoed Friday, saying "I firmly believe a central part of this bill is unconstitutional."
House Bill 1123 would've allowed the legislature to intervene in emergencies declared by the governor. It would allow for the establishment of procedures for calling an emergency session outside of the regular session, which the State Constitution declares as a power of the governor.