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House Quickly Passes Health Department Oversight Bill

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Legislative Photography West Virginia Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, speaks with a colleague Friday on the House floor. Zukoff spoke out against a bill that would give county commissioners more control over health regulations.

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates quickly passed a state Senate bill giving more authority to county commissioners over health regulations, skipping the normal committee process.

Senate Bill 12, relating to local health department accountability, passed the House 63-33 after passing the Senate Tuesday.

SB 12 would give county commissioners and city leaders veto power over rules or amendments to rules created by local boards of health except instances of health emergencies.

The bill also puts all local health departments under the authority of the state health officer in the event of a declared statewide health emergency. The bill applies to individual county and city health departments as well as joint health departments between more than one county or county and city joint health departments.

Instead of referring the bill to the House Health and Human Resources Committee, the committee offered an amendment to SB 12 replacing part of the bill with a House version that was already pending a vote. The amendment allows a county or city official to remain a voting member of a board of health. The original Senate version made those positions ex officio and non-voting.

The House amendment to SB 12 creates an appeal process for health department decisions and penalties and gives county and city governments 30 days to approve or reject rules made by health boards during states of emergency. The Senate version gave county and city governments immediate say over emergency rules.

Speaking against the bill, Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said her county commissioners were against the bill. Zukoff said commissioners are concerned about liability for overruling health department decisions.

“I think this is really a bad bill. I think it’s going to unintentionally harm some of our counties and create liability issues,” Zukoff said. “I think that we need to give those local boards local autonomy like they always have. There haven’t been any issues regarding that, even within the pandemic. I think we are asking our county commissioners to take on an undue burden that they’re quite simply not experienced with.”

Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, said the code already provides liability protections for decisions made by county commissioners. Fast likened the bill to the same authority the Legislature has to approve rules developed by state agencies.

“We pass and we vote and we deliberate on rules,” Fast said. “The county commission can do the same thing. They can question … the health department about the rule. They can call experts just like we can, and they can educate themselves. And then they can make their decision whether to approve, disapprove or amend that rule.”

The bill is opposed by groups representing county commissioners, local health departments, and public health advocates.

Normally sent to House committees for approval before hitting the House floor, the House dispensed with referring the bill to a committee to get the bill on the floor quicker and on third reading Friday. If the Senate approves of the House’s changes to the bill, it will go to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice to either sign or veto.

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