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New health Secretary to keep ties to UF

Currently, the Governor’s Surgeon General pick earns nearly $547,000 at the University of Florida.

When physician Scott Rivkees takes over as secretary of the state Department of Health, he will continue to be employed by the University of Florida.

Though there still is no official start date, Gov. Ron DeSantis remains committed to bringing on Rivkees to run the Department of Health, despite controversy that has included disclosures about a past sexual-harassment investigation.

In an interview this week with The News Service of Florida, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez attributed the delay in Rivkees starting at the department to negotiations on an agreement that will keep him on board at the university.

“There are contractual relationships that will remain, yes,” Nunez said, when asked if Rivkees will remain on the faculty at the university, where he serves as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.

Rivkees is an expert on pediatric endocrinology and developmental biology who joined UF Health from Yale University in 2012.

State records show that Rivkees earns nearly $547,000 at the university from a combination of sources, including state funding and contracts and grants received by the university.

Despite planning to continue a relationship with the university, Nunez said Rivkees will be working full-time running the health department.

“With regards to his duties here, they will not be diminished,” Nunez said in an interview Tuesday at her Tallahassee office.

“The expectation from me and the Governor, I believe, would be that he is going to perform all the duties, just like any other Secretary, just like any other Surgeon General,” she added. “There will be no diminished, time, no diminished effort, so there’s really no discussion around a reduction of salary.”

Melanie Fridl Ross, a spokeswoman for UF Health, said in an email Wednesday that Rivkees’ contract has not been finalized, “although it appears to be in the process. Therefore I do not yet have any details to share.”

The health department awards tens of millions of dollars to state universities for health-care research. Nunez said the state will take precautions to ensure that Rivkees won’t be involved in contracts that are signed with the University of Florida.

“We’re going to make sure that anything that is specific to the University of Florida, that we sort of wall that off,” she said. “The Governor has asked me to obviously oversee the Department of Health. So that’s something that I’m mindful of and that I will continue to be involved in. Anything related to the University of Florida.”

Allowing the Secretary to continue to earn money from an outside source is unusual, according to people familiar with the Department of Health. The secretary doubles as the state Surgeon General.

The modern-day Department of Health was created by the Legislature in 1996. More than 12,800 employees work for the agency, which has duties such as ensuring public health and regulating health care professionals. The agency has a budget of slightly more than $3 billion for the upcoming year.

When the state created the health department, lawmakers required that it be run by a Florida-licensed doctor. Lawmakers tinkered with the law at the behest of former Gov. Charlie Crist to require that the secretary also serve as “state health officer” and have advanced training or extensive experience in public health administration.

James Howell was the first Secretary of the Department of Health, heading the agency between 1996 and 1998. Now at the Florida Institute for Health Innovation, Howell said “it’s obviously not the usual way of doing business” for a Secretary to have another position, such as Rivkees having a continuing role with the university.

During his two-year stint as secretary, Howell said he never drew an outside salary.

“I was just a state employee,” he said.

Chris Nuland, a health-care attorney in Jacksonville, agreed with Howell’s observations.

“Historically, that is an unusual arrangement,” said Nuland, who lobbies on health-care issues in Tallahassee and represents surgeons and other doctors before state medical-licensing boards.

But Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican who is in charge of health-care spending in the Senate, indicated he thinks Rivkees’ financial arrangements are secondary to his performance leading the agency.

“The bottom line is, is the job getting done. And that’s where Nunez and DeSantis will evaluate the person,” Bean said.

The Department of Health has been without a secretary since former secretary Celeste Philip left in January. Meanwhile, the state faces a growing hepatitis A epidemic with the numbers of infections growing weekly.

DeSantis struggled to find a doctor to run the agency, in part because of the governor’s support for allowing smokable medical marijuana. DeSantis pushed the Legislature to pass a measure in March that allowed smokable marijuana, eliminating a ban approved by lawmakers in 2017.

DeSantis announced Rivkees appointment as health secretary on April 1.

The News Service of Florida reported later that Rivkees had been investigated in the past by the University of Florida for alleged sexual harassment. The probe found that Rivkees made sexually suggestive comments shortly after arriving at the school in 2012.

According to an investigation report, Rivkees was alleged to have repeatedly told people, “If we can’t agree on this, we’ll have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out.”

Rivkees acknowledged making the comment “and may have said it more than once,” telling investigators that the pediatric intensive care unit was in “disarray” and that the comment was meant as a joke, the report said.

In addition to the sexual-harassment investigation, a University of Florida auditor found in 2015 that Rivkees had not properly filed financial-disclosure information about his outside financial interests.

The auditor found that Rivkees had not disclosed to the university his consulting firm, Scott Rivkees Consulting, which was developed to organize speaking engagements and sales of a book he wrote. The audit said the non-disclosure was an oversight and that “no intent to deceive was indicated and is not suspected.”

Rivkees subsequently completed the disclosure form.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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