State Politics

Senate panel postpones confirmation vote on Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong

Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong listens to Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, as Gaetz comments at the Commission on Health Care and Hospital Funding meeting, Jan. 19, 2016, in Tallahassee.
Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong listens to Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, as Gaetz comments at the Commission on Health Care and Hospital Funding meeting, Jan. 19, 2016, in Tallahassee. AP

With his confirmation on shaky ground, Senate leaders Tuesday pulled a vote on whether Dr. John Armstrong, Florida’s surgeon general, should keep his job.

Armstrong needs the support of six members of the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee to remain the state’s top doctor and secretary of the Department of Health. Four Democrats and Republican Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami planned to vote against him.

“The surgeon general should be someone that has a strong commitment to public health,” Flores said. “And there have been a series of issues that perhaps question what that commitment to public health is.”

Before he was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, Armstrong was a hospital executive at the University of South Florida. He was one of several Scott appointees not confirmed last year after relations between the governor and Senate broke down over Medicaid expansion. If he isn’t confirmed by the chamber this year, he’ll lose his $141,000-a-year job.

Armstrong has faced tough criticism over the last year for health department policies that removed sick kids from the Children’s Medical Services program and repealed pediatric heart surgery standards, as well as his agency’s handling of licenses for medical marijuana growers.

What most worries Flores are the county health clinics, where staff has been cut and patient visits declined. Armstrong said many patients now receive care from other health centers, but Flores said he hasn’t sent her data she requested to confirm that.

This trend has accompanied increases in the number of new HIV/AIDS cases in Florida, particularly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“If the questions that I have are answered in a satisfactory way, I would be happy to move in favor of his approval,” Flores said.

With Armstrong’s job clearly in danger, Scott dispatched his legislative affairs director, Kim McDougal, to talk to Democrats on the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. But all four of them are expected to oppose Armstrong.

That’s a sure sign of worry by a Republican governor in dealing with a Senate committee made up of six Republicans and four Democrats.

Part of Armstrong’s problem is that he has apparently not built much of a reservoir of goodwill with legislators, several of whom have been unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt on issues like the cutbacks in county health departments.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said the committee will meet once more next week, but he said Armstrong faces a “steep uphill climb” to win enough votes to keep his job.

“Some of the members of the committee still have some questions outstanding and they want to circle around with the surgeon general,” Richter said. He identified two senators in particular, Flores and Democrat Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale.

Armstrong is happy to meet with senators who have questions and looks forward to his hearing, DOH spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said.

Richter said the postponement is not a politically motivated attack on Scott. “This is not about the governor. This is about the surgeon general,” Richter said.

In the same committee meeting, two of Scott’s other agency appointees — Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Cissy Proctor and Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie — breezed through confirmation.

Asked to predict whether Armstrong will keep his job, Richter said: “I hope so.”

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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