ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Legislature again injects politics into public health

Terre Haute Tribune-Star

This editorial was originally published May 14 in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has handled the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with wisdom and openness.

Holcomb, state Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box, Indiana Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver and their public-health team have relied on sound medical science. They enacted necessary restrictions to prevent the spread of a coronavirus that has killed more than 13,000 Hoosiers and infected 730,000, leaving many survivors with long-term complications.

Likewise, county health commissioners — appointed by their own county officials — and their staffs have generally stuck to solid medical practices in applying restrictions. Those decisions needed to be made quickly and nimbly, and be based solely on science, not politics. Those difficult decisions on mask mandates, public gatherings and capacity limits in businesses have saved lives.

Yet, the Indiana General Assembly’s ruling Republican Party has chosen to let future public health crises be guided by politics.

The Indiana House and Senate voted on Monday to preserve their idea to require elected county commissioners or city councils to approve any local health orders that are more restrictive than those issued by Gov. Holcomb, before those local orders can go back into effect. Holcomb had appropriately vetoed that bill. On Monday, the Indiana House and Senate overrode his veto, making House Enrolled Act 5 law.

Prompt decisions on public health emergencies have been made by public health officials, who typically consult the expertise of outlets such as Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, the final say in those situations could instead be based on the latest rant of a celebrity cable TV pundit.

Holcomb — a two-term Republican who won reelection by a 24.4% margin in November — responded to the Legislature’s override by pointing out that local health officials’ pandemic strategies are partly responsible for the state’s brisk economic recovery.

“I would have hoped that such sweeping change could wait until we gathered all the relevant experts and stakeholders to strike the right balance regarding local health authority during emergencies and avoid discouraging laudable service in the field of public health, especially knowing that it’s locally elected officials who appoint the local department of health board that hired the local health director in the first place,” Holcomb said in a statement.

His fellow Republicans in the Legislature insisted their move allows voters to hold elected officials accountable for such future public-health emergency decisions.

In reality, this legislation is a continuation of the Legislature’s super majority party exerting its power over local issues — an ongoing trend for more than a decade.

The governor’s response to the Legislature’s latest tactic mirrored that of state Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson.

Lanane told CNHI Statehouse reporter Whitney Downard that Indiana had previously “left it up to the experts to decide exactly what (were) the right actions to be taken … to strike a balance between protecting lives and livelihoods. They are having to make decisions on the spot, at the moment, to contain this deadly pandemic. So, I don’t think it’s a good idea to allow local, nonexpert politicians to override these urgent, complex decisions.”

This new law prioritizes finger-to-the-wind politics over Hoosiers’ health and safety.

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