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Utah Officials Look To Leadership Over Medical Experience For Deputy Director Of Public Health

Photo of a hand on a podium with a mask.
Associated Press
Under a bill considered by the Utah Legislature this week, the Utah Department of Health Deputy Director would not need to be a physician if the executive director is not one.

The Utah State Legislature is considering a bill this week to allow the deputy director of the state’s Department of Health to have minimal experience in public health. The move comes as the state continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Right now, if the head of the department is not a physician, the deputy director has to be one. 

This bill would create a chief medical advisor, who has to be licensed to practice medicine in Utah. It would also require the deputy director to have at least five years of experience in public health and to have completed one year in a graduate public health program, even though most Masters of Public Health programs are two years long. 

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, is the bill’s sponsor and he said Gov. Gary Herbert requested the bill so that UDOH’s Interim Director Rich Saunders could be given the job permanently.

“More so than I need someone that has medical education, I need someone who has some background but is a very good manager,” Christensen said.

The governor’s office has signaled its support of the bill. 

“Medical experts are crucial to the state’s (coronavirus) response — but so are individuals with experience in leading large scale operations and organizations,” Anna Lehndart, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement. “This bill allows the Utah Department of Health to rely on both operational leaders and medical experts, instead of requiring individual heads of the departments to be experts in both leadership and medicine.”

But Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said she’s worried that these changes could lead to a new philosophy at the department. 

“We need a health department that is led with a philosophy of health, augmented and supported by efficiency and driven by a very constrained budget,” she said. 

The Utah Academy of Family Physicians also opposes the bill. 

“Regardless of the ongoing pandemic and health landscape in the state, it is a short-sighted endeavor to alter job requirements of such a critical position simply for the sake of accommodating an interim leader who is not qualified for the role,” the organization said in a statement.

The full state Legislature is expected to vote on the bill Thursday during a special session.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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