Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant came out swinging on Monday in favor of a bill to give him control of the state departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation Services.

Senate Bill 2567, known as the “Health Agency Reorganization Act of 2017,” has prompted a scathing response from opponents, including some Senate Democrats and the chairmen of the Boards of Health and Mental Health. They’ve called the bill “tragic” and expressed concerns that it politicize vital agencies.

But in an interview on the Paul Gallo Show on Supertalk radio Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant remained unmoved by the “consternation” the bill had caused. He argued that the three health agencies would fare better with him at the helm.

“What I’m trying to do is simply work with the Legislature to see if we can consolidate services and areas of importance like healthcare so that you have this large standard of healthcare … And you have consortiums of health care and mental health and rehab services that bring it to a cabinet level position, much as we did with Child Protective Services, to give it extra emphasis so that we can continue to move with a sense of urgency in the right direction,” Bryant said.

In recent years, the relationship between state leaders and the Departments of Health and Mental Health has been laced with tension, as the agency heads have repeatedly sought funding for services and defended their work while Republican leaders have questioned how many of the services are necessary.

Two rounds of mid-year budget cuts and fallout over legislation passed in 2016, which swept some special funds into the state’s general fund, have drawn protests from many agencies, including Health and Mental Health.

State leaders, however, have argued that these cuts have helped streamline a bloated budget. And Bryant said this bill would continue that process.

“You get savings of money through efficiency … Mental health is one where our friends, often in the opposing party, the Democratic party, say Republicans aren’t doing enough. We’re not helping enough, we’re not funding enough. Well, here we are saying, ‘Let us help more,’ ” Bryant said.

Another provision of the bill would exempt employees of all three agencies from state Personnel Board requirements, potentially making those positions easier to eliminate.

In an interview with Mississippi Today, Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the State Board of Health, said that eliminating more positions would destabilize an already pared-down department, ultimately costing the state millions in longterm health-care costs.

“I’m not sure the average Mississippian and average legislator really understands the significant work that the department performs to keep the lives of Mississippians healthy,” Lampton said. “And we need the department that does this to have stability and oversight. We need one that is scientifically competent and not swayed by the whims of the politics of the day.”

Ultimately, however, Bryant said that the bill works because putting an elected official in charge of these departments makes them more accountable to the public.

“Nothing against the board members, but (they are) the establishment. These are the people who think and believe that this is our agency and we own it and dare not involve yourself in it,” Bryant said.

Supporters of the legislation had initially argued that the proposal would promote efficiency, allowing the agencies to share some services. In a committee meeting Thursday, where the legislation passed narrowly, Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, who authored the bill, vowed the power of all three boards would remain largely intact.

On Friday, however, as the controversy grew, Clarke walked back these comments, acknowledging the bill as written would radically shift departmental power away from each agency’s board and place it with the governor. Clarke also said he’d be open to an amendment preserving the boards’ powers.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.

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