HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard extensive testimony Thursday on a bill that seeks to give elected officials authority to review orders from local boards of health and health officers.
The House Local Government Committee held a hearing on House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, a Republican from Hamilton. It would allow a county commission or a city council or commission that oversees a health board to amend or remove the directives and orders they make in response to a declaration of emergency.
HB 121 would also require an elected governing body to approve when a health board proposes regulations for controlling communicable diseases.
The bill is one of a number lawmakers have already heard that came up as responses to health orders during COVID-19. Supporters said many members of the public have had questions about how and why health officers and boards of health made those decisions. They said giving the elected leaders a say would give those orders greater legitimacy, and give people greater recourse if they have concerns about the orders.
“This bill does not eliminate the board of health, it doesn’t strip the board of health of any powers, nor does it limit the needed expertise of the members who sit on the board of health,” said Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki. “Rather, the bill simply gives the citizens the voice they deserve in these important matters.”
Bedey argued that, in most cases, the governing bodies will listen to the advice of the appointed health officials, but they will also be more accountabie to the public.
Opponents of the bill, including representatives from a number of health care organizations, said health boards and health officers had greater expertise than elected officials, and the responsibility for making these decisions should remain with them.
“The legislation is divorcing the responsibility for protecting public health, which would still rest with local boards of health, from the authority to take important actions to do that,” said Gallatin city-county health officer Matt Kelley, representing the Association of Montana Public Health Officials. “That separation from that enormous responsibility from the authority to do anything about it is simply bad management, and it’s asking for big problems.”
Opponents said they were concerned if governing bodies made the decisions, the issues would become further politicized. They also said health boards are already accountable to elected leaders, who appoint many of their members.
Bedey is also sponsoring HB 122, which had its first hearing on Tuesday. That bill would put limits on the governor’s declarations of emergency and give the legislature a greater role in extended emergencies.
There are still likely to be more bills introduced on this subject. During Thursday’s meeting, Henry Kriegel, representing the group Americans for Prosperity, said he was opposing HB 121, but only because he preferred what he called a “more comprehensive bill” addressing health boards’ authority that has requested by Republican Rep. Matt Regier of Columbia Falls.