Editorials

Find out if he’s best for the job of Florida’s surgeon general

John Armstrong, Florida’s surgeon general, has had a bumpy road to confirmation.
John Armstrong, Florida’s surgeon general, has had a bumpy road to confirmation. AP

If John Armstrong’s position as Florida’s surgeon general is in trouble, then perhaps it’s because it should be. With rising rates of HIV infection, cuts to county health departments — think there’s a connection? — and the severely sick children who were suddenly removed from a healthcare plan, legislators are right to have their doubts about his fitness for the job.

The state Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee postponed a vote on whether Dr. Armstrong should remain in that post and as secretary of the Department of Health. He was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, but he and other appointees never were confirmed after the governor and the Senate got into a tiff last year over Medicaid expansion.

Tuesday, Miami Sen. Anitere Flores asked all the right questions and made clear that she expects forthright responses from Dr. Armstrong.

It’s been obvious all throughout the Scott administration that saving money is the No. 1 priority, and if that’s the boss’ focus, then it’s the appointee’s focus, too. But it too often comes at the expense of Floridians who can least afford to be left without services. As bad, it too often comes at the expense of Florida’s taxpayers, who foot needlessly more-costly bills as a result.

As Gov. Scott pushed — and still pushes — for tax cuts, prison abuses by low-paid and violent corrections officers went on and on; 13,000 rape kits went untested; state employees haven’t seen a raise in eight years. All of this costs us — in prison murders, in criminals still not caught, in families unable to get ahead financially. It seems no different with healthcare, unfortunately.

Sen. Flores is especially concerned about county health clinics, which — despite a state budget that’s in the black — have suffered budget cuts, staffing cuts and, not unexpectedly, a drop in patient visits. Though Dr. Armstrong said that many residents were getting care at other centers, Sen. Flores said on Tuesday that the doctor had yet to send any documentation to back up his contention.

Why not? The senator said that she had already requested it.

The clinic cutbacks have been accompanied by an increase in the number of new HIV/AIDS cases in the state, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, a worrisome reversal. In 2014, they led the nation for new infections per 100,000 residents. And if new patients are ending up at public hospitals, such as Jackson Memorial, then taxpayers, likely are paying for more-expensive care for people who arrive at their doors sicker than they might have been had the disease been caught earlier at a county health clinic.

This is the second time that Dr. Armstrong’s hopes to secure the surgeon general’s position permanently were thwarted. Last month, the Senate Health Policy Committee — Sen. Flores serves on that one, too — postponed a confirmation hearing until they got more informative responses. In addition to the rise in HIV infection rates, there was concern about the Department of Health’s new screening tool, introduced last year. It led to more than 9,000 children at one point being dropped from coverage. In fact, critics said that there was a tricky question that led parents to inadvertently say that their kids did not need coverage.

Ever since Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency regarding the Zika virus, Dr. Armstrong has circulated a daily update on confirmed cases in Florida. Nice. But state legislators need to ascertain if this is the best he can do to guarantee Floridians’ health and well-being.

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