Douglas wants to drop physician requirement for post

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(Host) The Douglas Administration says it’s having trouble filling the top job at the Health Department.

So the administration wants to remove the legal requirement that the state health commissioner has to be a physician. Officials say the change would expand the pool of qualified candidates.

But Vermont physicians oppose the move.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The post of health commissioner has been vacant for about a year. Governor Jim Douglas says it’s been hard to find a replacement.

(Douglas) “The salaries in state government are not always as attractive as we might like. I know that the secretary has been looking for some physicians to take that position and in a number of cases with which I am specifically familiar, compensation was a real problem.”

(Dillon) The legislature last year raised the top salary for health commissioner to $150,000. This year, a bill in the legislature would eliminate the requirement that the health commissioner be a physician licensed to practice in Vermont.

Human Services Secretary Cynthia LaWare says
the change is needed to expand the field of qualified candidates – and because the job requires someone with management skills and a background in public health.

(LaWare) “And I’m not convinced that just because one has a medical degree that they inherently have the leadership, management or administrative talent necessary or that they have an interest performing in those types of roles. So our intention in trying to broaden the requirement
for the position is to clearly have an advance degree in public health, and hopefully public health administration.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Medical Society is leery of changing the law. Executive Vice President Paul Harrington says the health commissioner is responsible for declaring public health emergencies – if there’s a flu outbreak, for example. So he says it’s important for the top health official to have a hands-on background in treating patients.

(Harrington) “If you have somebody declaring a public health emergency, what are the qualifications you want in that individual? Do you want them to be simply an administrator, with perhaps some public health background? Or do you want the person making that call have clinical experience, be a physician who’s treated patients and understand the medical ramifications?”

(Dillon) State officials say that about half the states allow non-physicians to run their health departments. Secretary LaWare says the department has physicians on staff who could advise the health commissioner.

(LaWare) “If a commissioner is making a decision to declare a medical state of emergency, for whatever reason, they would be relying on the input and advice from their senior management team which would undoubtedly include probably more than one doctor.”

(Dillon) LaWare says the state is no longer advertising or conducting a national search for a new commissioner. She says she’s hoping the legislature will change the job criteria first.

The bill hasn’t been a top priority. But the House Human Services committee is expected to hold hearing within the next few weeks.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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