The Arkansas Senate Rules Committee voted Thursday to hold a hearing on whether to confirm Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appointment of Health Secretary Jose Romero, who has been at the helm of the department for much of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One senator said he wanted to question Romero in public about decisions made during the pandemic. Another had questions about Romero’s comments about a drug touted by some but dismissed by others as a treatment for COVID-19.
No gubernatorial appointee has been the subject of a Senate Rules Committee hearing in the past four decades, a staff member said.
The committee rejected a motion by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, to refer Romero’s confirmation to the 35-member Senate. Her motion fell short of the required six votes on the 10-member committee.
Afterward, committee chairman Lance Eads, R-Springdale, said he hopes to schedule a committee hearing on Romero’s confirmation next week.
“It is customary for the Senate to give deference to the governor on filling Cabinet positions,” Hutchinson said later.
“Dr. Romero is a nationally recognized leader in pediatric medicine, and we are fortunate to have his experience and skills in state government,” the Republican governor said in a written statement.
“Dr. Romero has testified numerous times before various legislative committees, and I trust the Senate will proceed to confirm in the near future because this is a critical time with the Department of Health leading our state’s response to the [covid-19] pandemic,” Hutchinson said.
“We stand ready to work with the Senate for the confirmation as needed.”
At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, a Rules Committee member and frequent critic of Hutchinson, said the committee should hold a confirmation hearing to question Romero and allow him to respond and “discuss some of the behavior in the last six, or seven or eight months.”
He said he didn’t object to any of the governor’s other appointees. The Senate committee referred the other appointees to the full Senate, which confirmed them.
In August, Hutchinson announced his appointment of Romero as the Department of Health secretary to replace Nate Smith, who accepted an appointment at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The governor’s appointment of Romero as the permanent health secretary came after Romero served a stint as interim secretary.
Romero previously served as the department’s chief medical officer and is the chairman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which has provided guidance nationally on the development and administration of COVID-19 vaccines.
The state Department of Health pays $273,779 of Romero’s annual salary, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences pays a portion as well, according to department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel. Information on UAMS’ contribution to his salary wasn’t immediately available through Mirivel or UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor early Thursday evening.
Garner told the Senate Rules Committee that he prefers that the committee hold a video-streamed confirmation hearing for Romero in the Multi-Agency Complex, west of the state Capitol, or in a committee room in the state Capitol to discuss “some of his decisions since he has taken over that position, some of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“I have some heartburn about his ability to do the job in the last eight or nine months,” he said.
But committee member Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said “I am not sure a public forum is what we need.
“I don’t know exactly what Sen. Garner is talking about, but when you have a public forum before you establish that someone is really incorrect or not living up to his views or whatever it is that you have, then to link that, that is damaging to his reputation,” said Bledsoe, who is chairwoman of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Another committee member, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said “Frankly, this is a public meeting, and the press is here,” referring to a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Garner said the state Senate has the power to decide whether to confirm a gubernatorial appointee.
“I want to have some questions answered by [Romero] in a public forum, so that is not behind the doors and people can have access to that about some concerns I have before I will affirm my vote for him,” he said.
“If I am overruled in this committee, that is part of the process as well. But I will not vote in the affirmative until that happens,” Garner said.
He told the committee that he didn’t air accusations against Romero at Thursday’s committee meeting because Romero was not on hand to defend himself.
Then Rapert referred to testimony to lawmakers in August from Dr. Sandra Young of London, a part-time doctor at the Conway Human Development Center, who said she resigned in June because she didn’t believe she could prescribe hydroxychloroquine to the center’s residents. She said she made that judgment based on an email that she received from Romero.
But Romero testified at the time that while he didn’t recommend or endorse the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, he hasn’t prevented other doctors from using the medication. He said doctors are free to use the medication off label if they and their patients think it’s appropriate.
Bledsoe said Thursday “if we are talking about medication and that type of thing, we do need some other physicians here because we might not understand exactly what the treatment is, if that is what this is about.
“If this is about medicine and giving medicine then we need some experts here because I have lived with a physician, but I don’t know that much about medicine,” she said. Her husband, James Bledsoe, is a chief physician specialist at the Department of Health. The couple’s son, Greg Bledsoe, is the state’s surgeon general.
“I feel like we are treading on dangerous ground, if we think we can decide whether or not a medication is something that should have been given or not,” Cecile Bledsoe said.
Rapert said “the issue was actually more of a matter of [an] executive decision” and Romero’s testimony to lawmakers.
“It wasn’t a matter of a particular medication or not,” he said.
Another committee member, Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned whether the Senate Rules Committee has the purview to go beyond considering the qualifications of the governor’s appointee.
At that point, Irvin said “I don’t think there is six votes to this nomination to the floor right now in this committee from what I can see.”
She made a motion for the Senate Rules Committee to refer Romero’s nomination to the full Senate, and Flowers seconded her motion. But Eads ruled that the motion failed to get six votes in the divided committee.
Then the committee voted in a voice vote with no audible dissenters to schedule a committee hearing to consider the conformation of Romero’s appointment.
“I think the governor should be the one to come in and discuss the qualifications and the reason he has made this appointment and wants it confirmed by the Senate,” Flowers said.
Eads said the committee could request that the governor attend the committee’s meeting, as well as to Romero.
Then, Bledsoe said, “if neither one of them come, then what?”
Eads said the committee still could have another meeting with all of the committee’s members on hand.
Garner said the committee still could vote on whether to confirm Romero in Romero’s absence.
Other committee members are Sens. James Sturch, R-Batesville; Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne; Rickey Hill, R-Cabot; and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
Asked whether the governor plans to attend the committee hearing, Hutchinson spokeswoman Katie Beck said in a written statement, “that should not be necessary.”
As to whether Romero plans to attend, Mirivel said in a written statement that “as of earlier this afternoon, we had not received an official notice re: Dr. Romero testifying.”
Afterward, Senate legal counsel Steve Cook said the Senate Rules Committee hasn’t held a confirmation hearing for a gubernatorial appointee during the past roughly 40 years.
Cook referred to the governor’s office this newspaper’s questions about what would happen to Romero if the Senate declined to confirm him.
Hutchinson said in a written statement that “this would be uncharted territory.
“He has been serving during this pandemic for more than 9 months, and this is not the time to have an interruption in his leadership,” the governor said. “I would not speculate on what might happen because I trust the Senate will confirm Dr. Romero.”