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West Virginia Senate Debates Legislation Reducing Authority Of County Health Departments

State Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, speak during opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va.
Chris Jackson
AP photo
State Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha is one of the sponsors for Senate Bill 12.

The West Virginia Legislature is considering two bills that would curb the authority of local public health officials.

Senate Bill 12 would give county commissioners the authority to strike down ordinances coming from local boards of health.

Most Senate Republicans support the legislation, saying it gives the public greater representation in local health policy. Voters elect county commissioners, not board of health officials. Sen. Charles Trump of Morgan County said Tuesday on the Senate floor that political leaders can respond to the economic and social impacts of health decisions.

"We all agree we have to have regulations to protect and promote public health, but they have to be balanced against other considerations. Personal freedom," he said.

Democrats say, that’s not the point. Local health experts — rather than politically motivated elected officials — should be in charge of shaping science-based measures.

“In the grand wisdom of people that came before us, they said 'No, you know what, public health is not a political issue we should make the right decision based upon the science'," said Richard Lindsay of Kanawha County.

Health departments do a lot for communities. They inspect restaurants, childcare facilities and water sources. But they don’t make a ton of regulations, most of those safety standards are set by the state and federal government.

But health departments do decide on one thing.

“Our fear is if that happens that we’ll go back to smoking in restaurants and smoking in bars," said V.J. Davis, president of the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments. Public health workers like him oppose Senate Bill 12 and its companion, House Bill 2015.

“That's really the underlying intention of it in my opinion and we just don't feel this is a good bill for the public health of West Virginia," Davis said.

The bill passed the Senate mostly along party lines, with two Republicans siding with Democrats in opposing the measure.

As Senate Bill 12 moves to the House, another version of the bill is currently still on the floor in that chamber.

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