State Politics

Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong to lose his job

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

Gov. Rick Scott’s top health officer, Dr. John Armstrong, will lose his job Friday after the state Senate refused to confirm him in a rebuke to a governor-appointed agency head not seen in more than 20 years.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said Wednesday that he will not bring a confirmation vote to the Senate floor before the session ends this week.

“I’ve really struggled with it,” Gardiner said. “He did not have a vote in committee, and we’ve heard from members of the Democratic caucus that there’s a concern.”

Armstrong has been criticized for delays in the rollout of Florida’s medical-marijuana law and Children’s Medical Services changes that led to 9,000 sick kids being removed from health coverage.

But lawmakers’ resistance to confirm him grew after reporting by the Herald/Times in January highlighted a dramatic rise in HIV rates since Armstrong took office four years ago. Florida leads the nation in new infections, especially in South Florida. In the same time that HIV has been on the rise, county health clinics run by Armstrong’s Department of Health have cut positions and seen fewer patients.

He did not have a vote in committee, and we’ve heard from members of the Democratic caucus that there’s a concern.

Senate President Andy Gardiner

Armstrong was first appointed surgeon general and secretary of the Department of Health in 2012. He was one of several Scott appointees not confirmed last year after relations between the governor and Senate broke down over Medicaid expansion. Armstrong is among the longest-serving agency heads appointed by Scott. Previously, Armstrong was a medical officer at the University of South Florida and a surgeon in the U.S. Army.

The rejection of Armstrong is yet another decisive political defeat for Scott, who repeatedly — and incorrectly — predicted Armstrong would win approval from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Gardiner said he left Scott a voicemail but had not spoken to him directly by Wednesday evening.

The governor’s office refused to say whom Scott plans to appoint when Armstrong leaves.

“We continue to believe Dr. Armstrong is the best person for the job,” Scott’s spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said in a statement.

The last time an agency head was not confirmed was in 1995, when the Senate, where Republicans had just gained control, refused to confirm Jim Towey, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to be secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Gardiner, who supports Armstrong, was exploring a way to bring the surgeon general before the full 40-member Senate for an up-or-down vote, although his confirmation never cleared the chamber’s Ethics and Elections Committee. Twice last month, that panel scheduled hearings but never had enough votes to support his nomination.

Because of that, Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday morning that they would oppose any attempt to force a vote on Armstrong. Without their backing, Armstrong’s supporters do not have the two-thirds of the chamber needed to bring up a vote without Gardiner’s blessing.

“I just believe if he didn’t pass through the committee, then he shouldn’t come to the floor,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.

Braynon, who will become the Democratic leader next session, has been a vocal opponent of confirming Armstrong. He met with Gardiner on Wednesday morning to tell him that the Democrats were united in opposition, and the Senate president told him he did not intend to bring up a vote.

However, several senators have reiterated their support for Armstrong.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had reservations about Armstrong, but the surgeon general won his support in the Health Policy Committee after Armstrong agreed to support requests by county health departments to fill vacant positions if needed.

“I would sympathize with the governor’s frustration,” Gaetz said. “The governor does have the right to pick his team. We may not like a person — but we only have the right to turn them down if they are unqualified or they have committed some grievous act.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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

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