The Georgia House votes on a bill Tuesday that would give the state control of the Fulton County Health Department board following a tuberculosis outbreak in Atlanta homeless shelters, and the failure to use tens of millions in federal grant dollars for HIV prevention and treatment.
“That’s probably what really prompted a serious discussion about change,” said Rep. Jan Jones, R–Milton, the bill’s sponsor.
Of the 159 county health departments in the state, Fulton County is the only one that essentially operates independently.
It has done so for almost three decades, Jones said, because of a 1985 law that allows health boards to operate independently if their population surpassed 800,000.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Gwinnett County’s population already surpasses that number, and the state estimates DeKalb and Cobb counties will have populations beyond 800,000 by 2020.
Fulton County has the state’s largest population, and “probably largest vulnerable population,” Jones said. That, along with the unique challenges that come with an international airport, mean that it needs to coordinate more directly with the state.
“Currently it just operates, off in sort of a silo, relative to the rest of the state including DeKalb and Cobb and Gwinnett. Its size and its population and its role in the state makes it even more important that there be greater coordination, although there would still be a great amount of local control,” Jones said.
But, Jeff Graham of the LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality, and the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS is concerned the legislation, if passed, would set the groups’ work back.
“The serious issue of HIV and AIDS around the state is not just confined to Fulton County, and we’ve not seen strong leadership specifically from the [Georgia] Department of Public Health, and we are concerned that our efforts, our momentum at Fulton County will be stalled by this transition plan,” Graham said on WABE’s “Closer Look.”
Graham wants the legislation amended so it wouldn’t be implemented until 2017, while still keeping growing counties from creating their own independent public health boards.
Yet, the body that oversees the task force is in favor of Jones’ legislation.
“I think that this is a great way for state leaders, and local leaders, to be as a committee of one, to address this issue and so I don’t share the concerns that others have. I see this as a great opportunity,” said Fulton County Commission Board Chair John Eaves, also on WABE’s “Closer Look.”
That local support, and Jones’ position in the Georgia House of Representatives, means any opponents of the legislation have a tough battle ahead.
“It certainly looks like it is moving quickly through the legislature. It may be a done deal,” said Graham.