Gov. Supports Plan for New Health Agency

Times Staff Writer

Concerned about threats that include a flu pandemic and bioterrorist attacks, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his support Tuesday for a new state Department of Public Health.

The governor is embracing legislation by Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) to establish a California office focused on concerns such as outbreaks of disease and food poisoning, and overseeing care of 100,000 people living in nursing homes.

“The governor is focused on getting ahead of the game and being visionary,” Margita Thompson, a Schwarzenegger press secretary, said Tuesday.


Ortiz’s legislation would also restructure California’s Department of Health Services, which focuses much of its effort on overseeing the $34-billion Medi-Cal program, which pays for healthcare for the poor.

The state earmarks about $2 billion for local public health programs, though Schwarzenegger’s new budget proposes a modest increase to pay for emergency preparedness.

The governor’s announcement, made at a conference in San Francisco commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, follows a suggestion his advisors made when he took office in 2003.

The Little Hoover Commission, a state government watchdog, also has called for creation of a public health department, as have county and city public health officers, and the California Medical Assn.

There is a position called public health officer within the Department of Health Services. Ortiz and others say the post lacks the independent power, however, of a director of a separate public health department.

Dr. Richard Jackson, a nationally known physician and one of Schwarzenegger’s most prestigious early appointees, resigned as public health officer last year. Jackson has not spoken publicly about the issue, but some county health officials close to him said that he was frustrated by the lack of authority given the position.

“I’m glad the governor is doing an about-face and is going to join Democrats to best address California’s health needs,” Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement.

Although he voiced his support for the legislation, Schwarzenegger also requested that Ortiz make some changes, the senator said Tuesday. Ortiz had envisioned a public health board with broad authority. The governor dislikes that provision.

Still, Ortiz hailed the governor’s support, and said that last year when she pushed the bill, SB 162, the administration had qualms about the cost. A similar bill stalled in 2003. This year, Ortiz’s bill has been embraced by several Republican legislators.

“I think the California public health director is going to be incredibly high profile,” said Ortiz, who is running for California secretary of state. “The public health director of the state of California will be comparable to the U.S. surgeon general.”

California’s readiness for epidemics and bioterrorism long has been a concern. A briefing book prepared by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998 for his successor, Gray Davis, warned about increases in food-borne diseases, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. It also cited the threat of bioterrorism and declared that “the new administration will need to immediately begin working with Congress and the federal government” on readiness.

Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County’s health officer and president of the local health officers association, was among the physicians who lauded the governor’s announcement. Morrow predicted that a strong state public health officer would help counties coordinate responses to existing and emerging diseases.