Tough road to confirmation: FL Senate finally okays Surgeon General Scott Rivkees

Florida's surgeon general
Florida's new surgeon general. Credit: University of Florida

The Florida Senate finally confirmed Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, overcoming controversies and concerns that the pediatric specialist and renowned medical researcher may not have advanced public health credentials for the tasks that lie ahead.

The Senate vote Friday was 31-9.

As Surgeon General and head of the Florida Department of Health, Rivkees will face one of the most difficult public health problems in decades — the  coronavirus pandemic.

It has been a tough road for Rivkees, who had faced criticism about his public health experience as well as former sexual harrassment allegations and comments considered by some to be inappropiate.

Rivkees was appointed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But after mounting scrutiny at the time, he had not been confirmed by the end of the 2019 legislative session.

The Senate resumed the confirmation process in the 2020 legislative session, and Rivkees vehemently defended his background, saying at a Senate hearing that “what has been reported truly is mischaracterization of the facts.”

In the end, Rivkees cleared three Senate committee hearings, though some senators asked pointed questions.

Rivkees was criticized about the department’s lack of transparency when it came to releasing information about people in Florida being tested for the coronavirus-related disease known as COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is a public health emergency, what we need is proactivity and not reactivity,” said State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat representing a part of Miami-Dade County. “We’ve been reactive and not proactive.”

Other senators in favor of the confirmation applauded Rivkees for his background in health care.

“I have known [Rivkees] for many years, he is really an authority when it comes to patient care,” said State Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Republican representing Martin and St. Lucie counties and part of Palm Beach County. ”He is also an authority on public health.”

The Surgeon General plays an important role, leading the state health departments and tackling a variety of public health issues such as Hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, opioid abuse, and others.

“This is not the time for someone without a public health background,” said State Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat representing part of Palm Beach County.

She said the state health department has not been communicating effectively with health care providers in the state, citing a doctor who had to wait for a long time for a response from the health department regarding the coronavirus.

Other senators said it’d be an inopportune time to appoint someone else as surgeon general. For example, Democratic State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade County said he supported Rivkees’ confirmation.

“This is not the time to change teams,” Pizzo said. “Right now, a lot of what I’m feeling is panic and anxiety. The ship has sailed, we are where we are, there is going to be a lot more positive tests. I don’t think we have a replacement for tomorrow afternoon.”

Said Republican lawmaker Rob Bradley: “I think making sure we have stability (dealing with coronavirus) is very important, so I’m going to support this.” said State Sen. Rob Bradley. Bradley represents a swath of north Florida counties.

But Sen. Kevin J. Rader, a Democrat representing parts of Broward, Palm Beach counties, opposed the confirmation, despite Rivkees’ expertise in pediatrics.

“I rise in opposition,” Rader said. “He is one of the preeminent pediatricians. He has no public health experience, but he did have one thing, that he was the chair of a public health board…his resume screams that he is not an expert [in public health].”

“He’s a little bit beyond his background,” Rader said. “I don’t believe he knows what to do.”