The West Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that checks the authority of county boards of health and could result in separate city/county health ordinances.
Senate Bill 12 passed 21-13, with Republican Senators Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and David Stover, R-Wyoming, voting with the Democratic minority.
The bill requires the appointing authorities of the county boards of health to approve or disapprove all ordinances and rules passed by the board. In the case of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, that would be the Cabell County Commission and Huntington City Council. It could result in one public health ordinance in the city and another in the county.
The appointing authorities also have to have a member serve as a non-voting member of the board.
Boards of health will be required to post new rules on the State Register and their website and to have a public comment period. The rule and any public comments must be submitted to the county commission and other appointing agency within 30 days. If a rule/ordinance is rejected, the appointing agency must explain in writing why and the board of health can resubmit the ordinance.
“Adverse decisions” by health departments can also be appealed by the community, as amended by the Senate on Tuesday.
If there is a public health emergency, the rule can immediately go into effect but the appointing agencies still must approve or disapprove the rule within 30 days. Boards must also defer to the state in times of emergency.
The bill is not retroactive, and the Senate rejected an amendment that would have required rules going back 10 years to be approved/disapproved.
Supporters of the legislation say the bill provides balance between public health and politics, and gives power back to the people by holding elected officials accountable.
“The people who are elected by the citizens should have the final say,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “If not, then people cannot be truly sovereign.”
The bill is opposed by the state Association of County Commissioners, the state association for public health officers, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the Board of Osteopathic Medicine.
“The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and our coalition partners oppose legislation that would take away local control and make it harder for county health departments to enact future smoke-free air and other public health regulations in communities,” the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in a statement. “These regulations protect West Virginia citizens from exposure to secondhand smoke and improve public health.
“Smoking and secondhand smoke exposure remain leading causes of preventable death and disease in West Virginia. More than 65 percent of the population in West Virginia, workers and patrons, benefit from smoke-free workplaces, including restaurants and bars, because of local smoke-free regulations put in place by local county health departments.”
Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, chairman of the Health committee, said the bill came about after “egregious” actions taken by some county health boards during the pandemic. Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, said one of the so-called egregious issues was Monongalia County deciding to prohibit Pennsylvania residents from buying liquor in West Virginia. Pennsylvania had closed its liquor stores and had higher rates of the virus at the time. Stollings said it was a decision made by the county commission, law enforcement and the board of health.
The other highly cited incident, Stollings said, was when vape shops in the Eastern Panhandle were classified as non-essential. That issue worked itself out once Gov. Jim Justice stepped in with statewide regulations.
Stollings said the bill was anti-public health and was a “poke in the eye” to the hardworking public health workers in the state.
“It’s a bad bill,” Stollings said Monday during a Democratic press conference. “They tried to put lipstick on it but they can’t make it pro-public health.”
SB 12 is similar to House Bill 2015, which was read for the first time Feb. 13 and then taken off the active “special” house calendar.