Virginia OKs bill to allow Prince William Co. to have its own health department

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Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax cast the deciding vote to allow Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park the authority to locally administer health services, rather than relying on the state.

The General Assembly passed Gov. Ralph Northam’s amended version of Senate Bill 1221 on Wednesday.

The original legislation, which unanimously passed both houses of the General Assembly earlier this year, allowed Loudoun County to enter into a contract with the Virginia Department of Health to locally provide public health services.

Northam’s amendment added Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park after the localities submitted a request to his office in March.

Across most of Virginia, health services are the job of state-run health districts. The Prince William Health District includes the county and both cities. Arlington and Fairfax counties are the only localities in the state with locally-run health departments.

The amended bill first went to the Senate when all 19 Republicans were joined by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who represents an eastern portion of Prince William County, voted against the revised legislation, resulting in a deadlock with the remaining Democrats. Fairfax, who is the Senate’s presiding officer, cast the deciding vote in favor.

The House of Delegates voted 96-0 in favor, with three Republicans and one Democrat not casting a vote.

Local officials have made the push amid the coronavirus pandemic as they have grown increasingly frustrated with the health district. They’ve said a local health department would have been able to more quickly address equity concerns with the response to the pandemic.

Prince William Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, directed county staff in October to craft a proposal for creating a local health department amid ongoing concerns with the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health district officials have said the agency has been hampered as it was underfunded and short-staffed for more than a decade after the recession that started in 2007. The Washington Post reported that more than 20 positions remain unfilled, and a lack of pay has made retention and recruitment difficult.

The total budget for the local health district is about $6 million. A district spokesperson said the state provides 55% of the budget and local governments provide 45%. In fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, the state provided $2.98 million, local governments provided $2.39 million and “an additional $718,693 in funding was also provided.”

Nikki Brown, assistant to County Executive Chris Martino, said the next steps in creating a local health district would require a “thorough” impact analysis. The Board of Supervisors and city councils would still need to vote to enter into a contract with the state.

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