In 1992 the Legislature unwisely decided to move much Florida Department of Health food-service responsibility to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
The change compromised the inspection of restaurants and convenience stores. It also weakened integration with health department epidemiologists and public health nurses.
Quarterly inspections were reduced to one or two per year by DBPR. DAC delayed inspections for more than two years. These actions compromised food-service safety for citizens and tourists.
A three-decade erosion of public health authority continued. Along with further losses of food-service responsibilities, Floridians saw the state close its only tuberculosis hospital, end funding to promote healthy lifestyles, reduce women’s health initiatives and separate other environmental health responsibilities.
The closed TB hospital housed the worst cases and had a world-renowned reputation as a teaching and training facility. Many discharged patients were found in motels. The premature closing occurred during the nation’s largest TB outbreak in Jacksonville.
The state also diminished the role of the state health officer. It ended the health department requirement to combat communicable disease, non-communicable disease and disability to the fullest extent possible. The once-proud health department became the victim of lobbyists, purged leadership, fearful staff and partisan politics.
Florida’s public health system became increasingly isolated from constituent communities. Community health risk increased. Legislative policy weakened response to Swine Flu, West Nile Virus, significant maternal and child health issues, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Essential public health regulatory efforts were fragmented. The aging of the population brought new challenges to public health. All health-related issues required a focused, efficient agency.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel seeks passage of Senate Bill 1080, which could return food-service inspections to the Department of Health. This effort represents a potential turnaround for the battered health department.
Reducing fragmentation will allow a better integration with public health nursing and epidemiology. Health Department scrutiny reduces the risk of food-related illnesses.
Added to restaurant inspections are detention facilities, assisted living facilities, adult family care homes, migrant camps and mobile food units. Excluded are temporary events, church kitchens, nonprofit civic organizations and theaters.
Florida’s public health effort needs strengthening. Florida’s Department of Health became a stand-alone agency in 1996. Once Separated from Health and Rehabilitative Services, the department quickly established valuable services to Florida communities through the County Health Department network, Division of Laboratories, the tuberculosis hospital, and professional oversight.
Immediately, lobbying forces worked to strip the health department of important regulatory functions and authority.
Senate Bill 1080 would bring food-service responsibilities back to Florida’s public health agency. This important health and safety legislation better protects Florida communities.
Hopefully, more legislation will come forward to strengthen Florida’s weakened public health effort.
Marc Yacht is a semi-retired physician living in Hudson. This article first appeared in Context Florida, an online publication.