Fred Grimm

Health department number crunchers cure Florida’s HIV crisis

Florida's Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong
Florida's Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong AP

It was a miracle, sudden and wondrous. But like other medical miracles attributable to the Florida Department of Health, slightly suspect.

Only a few weeks ago, Florida was leading the nation in new HIV infections. For instance, last year the state reported 6,240 new HIV cases, up from 6,147 in 2014. In fact, Florida’s HIV infections had been increasing every year since 2012, even as the national numbers were declining.

Florida was facing a worrisome public health crisis. Well, worry no more. The Florida Department of Health knows how to beat down an epidemic. Send in the accountants.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kathleen McGrory reported Saturday that the department has reconfigured the state’s embarrassing HIV stats from 2014 and managed to lop off a quarter of the new infections. The department was able to tamp down that year’s total to 4,613. Still bad, but low enough to allow Florida to shed its “worst in the nation” status.

The agency claimed it reached the new total by culling duplicated names from state records and by removing names of patients diagnosed with HIV in Florida clinics but with an official residence in some other state. Experts, however, found the reduction startling. And the timing suspicious.

Earlier this month, the state Senate had refused to confirm John Armstrong, Rick Scott’s nominee for state surgeon general, in part because of concerns over the steady rise in HIV cases. Armstrong, who had been acting surgeon general since 2012, had also presided over cutbacks in health department staffing. The Herald reported in January that during Scott’s tenure, state-funded staff positions at Florida’s 67 county health departments had been reduced from 12,759 employees to 10,519. Critics in the Legislature suggested there was a relationship between the staff reductions and the increase in HIV cases.

The DOH has issued a press release denying that the agency had manipulated its stats and instead accused the Tampa Bay Times of using “cherry-picked data to fit a predetermined conclusion.” What the department has not explained is why the revived stats weren’t used to rebut Armstrong’s critics when he was being skewered in the Legislature. Supposedly, the new numbers have been around since January.

Besides, the DOH has suffered a numbers credibility problem since last summer, when the Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller reported how the agency had come up with a clever new screening system designed to knock thousands of Florida’s frail and ailing children out of a state program providing crucial pediatric care.

At least 6,000 “medically complex and medically fragile” children were suddenly deemed no longer eligible for the Florida Children’s Medical Services program. Instead they were shunted — “transitioned” as the bureaucrats put it — into a clunky Medicaid program a federal judge had characterized as “a second-rate health care system.”

Children with serious and chronic conditions including severe vision and hearing impairments, facial deformities and metabolic disorders were reclassified without the bother of physician recommendations. When Florida needs a medical miracle, the Department of Health just calls out the accountants.