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Maryland bill could add job protections for local health officers

Sen Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard counties, who is also a physician, said politics interfere with how health officers perform their jobs. Since the start of the pandemic, seven local health officers have resigned, retired or been forced out of their jobs. (The Daily Record file photo)

Local governments could find it more difficult to fire a health officer under a bill before the Maryland General Assembly.

A pandemic entering its third calendar year has increased the public’s attention on a previously non-controversial position. The crossroads of politics and COVID-19 has resulted in the bullying of some health officials and the termination of others.

“In an age where public opinions are swayed by social media content filled with questionable and at times erroneous health information, it has become ever more important to provide a buffer for health officers who answer not only to elected officials but to the professional and ethical standards of the boards of physicians and nurses,” said Calvert County Healthy Officer Dr. Laurence Polsky, who represents the Maryland Association of County Health Officers.

The pressure health officers find themselves under drew public attention in October when the Harford County Council terminated Dr. David Bishai.

Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore Counties and a physician, said politics interfere with how health officers perform their jobs. Since the start of the pandemic, seven local health officers have resigned, retired or been forced out of their jobs.

“With 24 jurisdictions in the state, losing seven health officers in two years’ time should ring alarm bells,” said Lam.

Lam’s bill limits local executives, county councils which sometimes sit as local health boards, or county commissioners from terminating a health officer for any reason other than immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetence, or willful neglect of duty.

Lam modeled the legislation on statutes that apply to the firing of school superintendents.

The bill also sets up an appeals process that can be used to challenge a termination.

Lam said he sponsored the bill after the Harford County Council “undertook a concerted and coordinated effort to oust” Dr. David Bishai in October.

Dr. Travis Gayles, who served as Montgomery County’s health officer, left the position for the private sector in 2021. During the pandemic Gayles said he had been subjected to dozens of daily emails containing racial or homophobic comments directed at him, according to Bethesda Magazine.

Harford County along with Montgomery County are still searching for permanent replacements.

“It’s turning out that the abuse of health officers in one county is poisoning the well for all the other counties in Maryland, which is why the state should take action on this issue,” said Bishai.

“Who would want to serve in a position like this when we see this epidemic of councils and governing bodies acting in a feckless manner?’ said Bishai.

The former Harford County health officer told the Senate Finance Committee he was targeted solely for political reasons by a vocal minority opposed to his following of Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive orders.

“There was no policy question the citizens were angry or agitated about,” Bishai said. “They simply didn’t like the executive order and were angry about having to wear masks and added to their protests ‘we should also fire the health officer.’ That was their mantra: we don’t like masks. Fire the health officer.

The Maryland Association of Counties opposes the change saying it might limit the ability of newly elected county leaders to name their own senior advisors.

“If we pass this bill as is … basically once you become health officer, you’re health officer for life,” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll County.

Bishai’s story drew an apology from a Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“As a Harford County senator I will tell you we had no idea what was going on with the County Council,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Harford and Baltimore Counties. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

The apology may have swayed Sen. Delores Kelley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

“I take seriously (Jenning’s) take on it, that it was wrong in that case,” said Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. “That there were things happening that should not. That many members of the community wrote to him subsequently when they found this out, because it all happened suddenly and privately, to say they wanted this person reinstated. There is a problem.”