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Arkansas Health Secretary To Remain In Position After Fierce Legislative Debate

Arkansas Health Secretary José Romero at a press conference on Jan. 18 shortly before he was vaccinated for COVID-19.
Michael Hibblen

The Arkansas Senate narrowly voted Thursday to keep state Health Secretary Dr. José Romero in his position, despite criticism from some senators over his actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The half-hour of debate also included an ongoing theme of some senators accusing the executive branch of wielding too much power during the health emergency. Romero was appointed to the position by Gov. Asa Hutchinson last May, and continues to have the governor’s support.

"It really, really bothers me that you can have somebody making decisions like this that were unnecessary, that were overburdensome and we not hold them accountable whatsoever," said Republican Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway.

He accused Romero and others at the state Department of Health of taking steps that disproportionately hurt small businesses.

"You can go to Walmart, you can go to Lowe’s and you can rub up against one another and you can be there all day long and they never wanted to shut their doors, but think about all those mom and pops and those restaurants," Rapert said.

He and Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, also criticized Romero for not being present at Thursday’s confirmation hearing. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said he had not been invited.

But other Senators, like Democratic Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, said given the uncertainty, Romero did the best job he could.

"The things that I have heard that people put up as objectionable are specific to things that the whole world has experienced in this last year with this pandemic," Flowers said. "We didn’t have a road map to deal with this. It hadn’t occurred in a hundred years."

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said she had received unsolicited support from several doctors and others in the medical profession, including Washington Regional Medical Center President and CEO J. Larry Shackelford. Bledsoe read an email from him praising Romero for his work, then urged her colleagues to support Romero’s confirmation.

“Dr. Romero is an honorable and trustworthy man. He has had to juggle what the CDC and the Arkansas version of the response of the COVID pandemic has been. Sometimes there are minor contradictions, but Dr. Romero has been consistent in his handling of them.”

A two-thirds vote was needed for Romero’s confirmation, with 25 senators – one more than needed – giving Romero their support.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.