By Cynthia Washam
Health News Florida
Weeks after a new state law removed Florida Department of Health inspectors from child-care centers, they’ve quietly been welcomed back into a few centers, with more to come. (For the original story, click here.)
The Legislature had given the Department of Children and Families responsibility for the centers, but DCF found it couldn’t do the work and had to contract with DOH to do it, according to agency documents reviewed by Health News Florida.
The first agreement covers a limited number of child-care centers; a second agreement, expected soon, will expand the DOH’s authority to inspect all of Florida’s thousands of licensed day-care centers.
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The contracts repair the damage done when the Legislature passed a controversial law that took away DOH’s responsibility for food-safety inspections in child-care centers, nursing homes, hospitals and similar institutions. The law took effect July 1.
Proponents of the law claimed it would ease the burden of multiple inspections on owners of child-care centers. The DCF inspects centers it licenses, while DOH personnel conduct separate inspections of the centers’ food services.
The bill had no provision for teaching food safety to DCF inspectors, most of whom have bachelor’s degrees in social sciences. DOH inspectors have degrees in science or health and training in food safety.
“DCF inspectors…do not have the training and experience to thoroughly inspect the food-service function,” DCF communications director Joe Follick wrote in an e-mail.
For that reason, public-health officials quietly condemned the shift in inspections before it became law. They had not opposed the bill when legislators were discussing it last spring because it included funding for trauma centers, biomedical research and other key programs.
“I had no idea this was going to be the unintended consequence (of the new legislation),” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee). She doubts other legislators did either.
“I just felt like it got pushed through too quickly without a lot of study and input,” she said. “It seems to me we needed to take a little more caution.”
Rep. James Frishe, vice chairman of the House Health Care Appropriations Committee and an ardent supporter of the bill, admits he didn’t anticipate problems with the changeover.
“It didn’t seem to be a major issue,” said Frishe, R-St. Petersburg. “We acted on information we had at the time.”
The trouble with the law came to light days after it took effect when Rehwinkel Vasilinda got a plea for help from a constituent who wanted to open an Early Head Start child-care program in Tallahassee.
Director Pamela Davis needed a kitchen inspection to qualify for funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide lunches for the children. DCF workers didn’t know how and DOH inspectors weren’t allowed.
“I was in a terrible bind,” Davis said.
So was the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which couldn’t get funding for its Head Start lunch program in Marion County without a food-service inspection. “There was some frustration,” said Leslie Moguil, associate executive director.
Rehwinkel Vasilinda met with DOH and DCF administrators to come up with a quick fix. They drafted an agreement giving DOH inspectors temporary authority to conduct food-service inspections for DCF at child-care centers participating in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. The USDA requires participants to have at least two kitchen inspections per year.
The inspection agreement signed in late July applies only to the state’s few USDA-subsidized child-care centers and residences for disabled children. But officials from the DCF and DOH anticipate a second agreement that would expand DOH kitchen inspections to all day-care centers licensed by the DCF. Both inspection contracts are expected to apply through June 2011.
“We expect an agreement to be completed very soon,” DCF’s Follick wrote.
When the legislature meets next year, a permanent fix to the inspection debacle will be on the agenda. But the House member who engineered the change, Rep. Denise Grimsley, is still determined to shift kitchen inspections to the agency she believes is least burdensome to day-care owners.
“Hopefully, DCF will…establish what standards are really necessary to keep children safe and healthy, versus what is intrusive and irrelevant,” Grimsley, R-Sebring, wrote in an e-mail interview. Grimsley, who chaired the House Health Care Appropriations Committee last year, has just been promoted to overall appropriations chair.
“The level of qualification and training needed will depend on the standards and the depth of the inspections, which will likely change,” she wrote.
That dismays public-health officials who believe that social workers newly trained in food safety can’t do as good a job as experienced health inspectors.
“You can’t send a social worker in to do a food-service inspection,” said Dr. Marc Yacht, a retired physician and director of the Pasco County Health Department for 20 years. “Why not take advantage of people already trained to do it?”
–Cynthia Washam is an independent journalist in Jensen Beach. Questions can be addressed to Editor Carol Gentry.