Like a rapidly expanding virus, the dearth of physicians at the Department of Health appears to be spreading.
There is no doctor running the health department. There's a shortfall of doctors at the state’s licensing boards. And it’s becoming a problem.
Nine disciplinary cases that were slated to be heard by the Board of Medicine at its June meeting in Miami have been withdrawn from the agenda due in part to vacancies on the licensure board as well as a procedural rule that prevents any board member who served on a probable-cause panel that heard initial allegations in a case from voting on the final disposition.
Board of Medicine members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Florida Senate.
Right now, there are two vacant spots. In addition to the vacancies, the board has five members who continue to serve although their terms have expired --- consumer representatives Nicholas W. Romanello and Brigitte R. Goersch, whose appointments expired Oct. 31, 2016 and Oct. 31, 2017, respectively, and doctors Steven Falcone, James Orr, and Hector Villa, whose terms expired Oct. 31, 2018.
Former Gov. Rick Scott did try to reappoint Falcone before Scott left Tallahassee to join the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. But Falcone was among dozens of other Scott appointments that were withdrawn by Gov. Ron DeSantis after the new governor took office in January.
Scott also tried to reappoint two members whose board positions hadn’t expired: Andre Maurice Perez and Merle P. Stringer, whose appointments expire Oct. 31, 2020 and Oct. 31, 2021, respectively. But DeSantis withdrew those appointments, too.
The Board of Medicine is the licensing body charged with regulating the medical profession. It is housed in the Florida Department of Health.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez visited the Tallahassee headquarters of the agency this week, according to her schedule. She also this week made visits to health departments in Duval and St. Johns counties.
Nuñez, a onetime hospital lobbyist-turned-lawmaker, announced the site visits after The News Service of Florida reported that she appears to be running the public-health agency out of her South Florida offices.
The rub is that the agency is required to be run by a licensed, Florida doctor.
All of this is occurring while the state is dealing with a growing hepatitis A outbreak. With an additional 89 cases reported last week, Florida has had 1,220 hepatitis A cases this year --- more than in the five previous years combined, according to information posted on the state agency's website. The outbreak has hit hardest in the Tampa Bay region and in parts of Central Florida.
The DeSantis administration maintains that Scott Rivkees will join the department as surgeon general in June. In the meantime, the administration says that Nuñez is working closely with the state’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Carina Blackmore, and there’s no reason to worry. But Blackmore also doesn’t have a medical degree. She has a master’s degree in veterinary medicine and a doctorate degree in philosophy from Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ choice to run the department, who was investigated for sexual misconduct by University of Florida officials, continues to serve as the chair of the UF College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and as physician-in-chief of the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, according to university spokeswoman, Melanie Ross. As of Friday, Rivkees had not submitted a resignation letter to the university, Ross said.
It’s the last day before the long Memorial Day weekend that signals the beginning of summer. We just want to know: What’s Going On?
-- This piece has been excerpted from the author's current weekly column, "The Weekly Checkup".