- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2021

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Legislature is considering a measure that would require the state’s health officer to be a practicing licensed physician .

The Republican-backed bill comes after a trio of health officers hand-picked by GOP Gov. Doug Burgum quit while the coronavirus pandemic was worsening in the state. Dirk Wilke, who has no medical training, has been the interim state health officer since September.

Mike Nowatzki, spokesman for the governor’s office, said Monday a new health officer will be hired soon, and the “candidate” is a physician from out of state. He would not elaborate.

The state health officer oversees the Department of Health and implements state laws governing the department. The officer also is a statutory member of a number of boards and commissions. The department oversees a number of health-related programs, dealing with everything from disease prevention and hospital and clinic licensing to environmental regulation.

Wilke also was picked by Burgum after others quit to temporarily head the agency. The move drew sharp criticism over how the governor handled the virus, including questions over his selection of Wilke.

The Health Department’s website says Wilke has a law degree from the University of North Dakota, though the State Board of Medical Examiners said he has never taken the bar exam in North Dakota.

He is paid $12,600 monthly, records show.

Wilke replaced Dr. Paul Mariani who abruptly resigned in September after only 12 days on the job when Burgum reversed himself and rescinded an order that would have enforced quarantines for close contacts of coronavirus patients.

Mariani took over after Dr. Andrew Stahl stepped down in late August to join a private practice. Burgum said at the time that Stahl resigned due to family, financial and career considerations, not because of any disagreements with the administration. Stahl took over in late May for Mylynn Tufte, who was not a doctor and resigned without explanation.

Finley GOP Rep. Bill Devlin said in an interview the bill he introduced had nothing to do with the turnover of the position.

“I’ve always felt the health officer should be a medical doctor,” he said.

The House Human Services Committee took no immediate action on the bill Monday. Devlin sits on the 14-member committee.

North Dakota Medical Association spokeswoman Donna Thronson told the committee her group does not appose the bill but wants it amended to include the physician who heads the agency must be “eligible” for a North Dakota medical license.

Until the late 1990s, North Dakota law required the state health officer to be a doctor. It was relaxed to allow non-doctors to hold the post. Non-doctors who hold the post are required to have a three-person panel of physicians advise them.

That requirement would be dropped if the bill is passed.

Hurdsfield GOP Rep. Robin Weisz, who heads the Human Services Committee, said he expects legislation requiring the health officer to be a doctor will pass in some form.

Weisz said the requirement also is contained withing a more than 260-page bill he is sponsoring that would merge the state Health Department with the Department of Human Services.

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