BISMARCK — After North Dakota saw three people step down from the state's top health official position in 2020 and with the current man in the role having no medical training, a bill before the Legislature would set a requirement that future state health officers be a licensed physician in North Dakota.

The new requirement is enveloped in House Bill 1247, which mostly outlines the new structure of a combined Department of Health and Department of Human Services. The 263-page bill revamps some of the existing positions and entities in the two departments and provides an overview of what the two departments infused into one looks like. One of the changes includes placing the state health officer position under the authority of the executive director of what would be known as the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the bill.

The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, who is also the chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he thought it was important that the state health officer be a physician, and the bill takes away some of the day-to-day administrative duties from the role so they can focus on health-related issues.

Weisz emphasized that the bill is unrelated to the fact that the current man in the role, Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke, is not a licensed physician, and that combining the two departments and altering the state health officer's role has been "seriously" discussed for years.

"This really has nothing to do with ... the pandemic or whether some agree or disagree with the Department of Health," Weisz told The Forum. "It's totally irrelevant to any of those issues, just seemed like good timing."

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In North Dakota, the state health officer runs the Department of Health and can implement public health orders, like the mask mandate Wilke signed in November. Under the bill, some of the administrative duties would be stripped from the state health officer role, like appointing people to positions and determining their salaries.

Wilke, who has been in his interim health officer position for four months, received degrees in business, law and communications.

North Dakota has seen three state health officers resign amid the pandemic. In May of last year, Mylynn Tufte stepped down from the role of state health officer to return to the private sector, Gov. Doug Burgum said at the time. She served three years in the position, and before that, she was a registered nurse.

After Tufte resigned, Dr. Andrew Stahl, a Bismarck physician, stepped down in August — just three months into the position. Reports at the time stated Stahl and Burgum disagreed with the way the state's COVID-19 response was handled.

Then in September, Fargo physician Dr. Paul Mariani resigned just 11 days into the position and just one day after Burgum rescinded an order that required close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine.

In a release at the time, Mariani said "the circumstances around the handling of the order made my position untenable."

Mike Nowatzki, Burgum's spokesperson, said in a statement that the Governor's Office generally supports having the state health officer be a licensed physician, and said that qualification is something they will be searching for in hiring the next health officer.

"In fact, one of the expectations set in the hiring process for the next State Health Officer was that he or she be a physician who is licensed in North Dakota or eligible to be licensed in North Dakota if from another state," Nowatzki said.

Weisz said now is a good time to change the requirements for state health officer since Wilke is only holding the role temporarily.

"This (bill) isn't impugning any of the employees of the Department of Health or anything else," Weisz said. "I don't want anybody to think that I or any of the sponsors aren't happy with the department."

The bill had its first hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.