On Thursday, Maryland’s Health and Government Operations Committee in the House held its first hearing on a bill for this new legislative term. The committee took up only one bill, which was House Bill 214.
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Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D – Montgomery) introduced HB 214, which would establish a Commission on Public Health for Maryland. The intended commission would be composed of 18 members who would make recommendations to improve the delivery of foundational public health services for the state.
HB 214 would require the newly formed commission to conduct an assessment of Maryland’s Department of Health and local health departments’ capabilities on foundational public health services. Specifically, HB 214 would require an assessment to consider Maryland’s responses to COVID-19, overdose deaths, and racial and ethnic disparities in maternal mortality and birth outcomes.
Kelly spoke about why she introduced this bill, despite Maryland being one of the richest states. She cited that the CDC ranked Maryland 25th in life expectancy, 29th in infant mortality, and 45th in drug overdose deaths.
“Most the time, public health is invisible, but during the pandemic, the work of public health became highly visible and was something all of us were talking about,” Kelly said. “Sometimes we saw a system that struggled to serve the people in a moment of crisis, and we know we can be doing better.”
One of the first three panelists who spoke about the positives of HB 214, Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins, said this bill takes a similar approach to what other states are conducting, which meet the needs of their citizens. Sharfstein listed states that have already implemented a commission like this: Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Washington State, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma.
There were 15 witnesses who testified in support of HB 214. Many witnesses had amendments that pertained to the total number of members of the commission and the standing membership composition of this newly formed commission.
One witness, Kathleen Hoke, law school professor and director of the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy at the University of Maryland, who provides technical and legal assistance to policy and law makers, recommended amendments to HB 214. Hoke emphasized the importance of adding more consumer representation and expanding the diversity of health officers, whether that be geographic based or population based.
HB 214 was referred to the Subcommittee of Public Health and Minority Health Disparities, where further discussions will take place next week. HB 214 was cross filed with Senate Bill 281, which awaits a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.