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Wisconsin Spotlight  | Nov. 13, 2020

MADISON — Are Andrea Palm’s days at the state Department of Health Services numbered?

Now that the legislative elections at least are settled, some conservative state senators say it’s time to hold a long-delayed confirmation vote on the DHS secretary-designee and send her packing.

Newly elected Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) tells Wisconsin Spotlight the Senate Republican Caucus is discussing the appointment of Gov. Tony Evers’ controversial health czar.

“There have certainly been calls from a number of senators who would like to see her removed,” Kapenga said.

Perhaps the most vocal proponent of Palm’s ouster is state Sen. Steve Nass. The Whitewater Republican has long been opposed to Palm’s confirmation, but he has become increasingly critical of her leadership since the outbreak of the pandemic last March.

“Sen. Nass still believes she absolutely, positively, 100 percent has to be rejected and that it should be done very quickly,” said Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for the senator.

Mikalsen says Palm’s record has been “abysmal.” Nass, Mikalsen said, has urged Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and incoming Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu to take up Palm’s confirmation vote — and reject her — either in extraordinary session in the coming weeks or as the first order of business when the new session starts in January.

So have other conservatives.

Sen. Duey Stroebel says he hasn’t changed his mind. The Saukville Republican, who has been a vocal critic of Palm and the DHS since the start of the pandemic, told Empower Wisconsin in May he is open to a vote, and he would vote against the secretary-designee’s confirmation.

“My record is clear where I stand on it,” Stroebel said this week.

Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) and Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon), who is leaving the Senate after his term wraps up in January, also are on record saying they want to remove Palm from her post.

Kapenga in May said the secretary-designee had exceeded her authority and broken the law.

“We’ve removed people for less,” he said.

At that time, Palm had been scolded in a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority opinion for breaking Wisconsin law in extending Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide lockdown order beyond 60 days. The court said Palm needed to work with the Republican-controlled Legislature through the rule-making process to issue extended emergency orders.

It wouldn’t be the last time Palm and Evers found themselves in trouble with the courts for failing to follow state law and the Supreme Court ruling.

Evers, a Democrat, blames the conservative-led court for taking away his ability to enact unilateral edicts in his administration’s response to COVID-19.

But Mikalsen said Palm has presided over a health department that has failed at every turn. DHS’ COVID-19 data collection system has been bogged down with glitches and accuracy issues, including lagging negative and positive test numbers. The lag, at times, has made it difficult to track the impacts of the virus in real time.

Palm and her bureaucrats have been slow or have failed altogether to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act funds to frontline health care workers.

As Wisconsin Spotlight reported, Stephanie Smiley, the DHS bureaucrat in charge of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 response, was a former art teacher who did not have degrees in medicine or science. Smiley resigned this week, not long after news broke about her questionable resume.

DHS has failed to fill as many as 2,000 contact tracer positions that health experts say are needed to adequately track the virus. In early October, the agency had 283 state employees working at contact tracing, with another 100 positions to be filled in the ensuing days.

And as Evers and Palm complained that DHS lacked funding and resources, particularly for Wisconsin’s most vulnerable populations, Palm failed until late last month to promulgate a rule that would guarantee the state’s SeniorCare prescription drug program would cover COVID-19 vaccine costs. Her delay had nothing to do with funding.

Palm’s strategy, backed by the governor, appears to have been built on the hope for perpetual lockdowns. Evers earlier this week announced what amounts to a voluntary lockdown. The governor warned that it’s “not safe to go out, it’s not safe to have others over … And it might not be safe for a while yet.”

How long is a while? Evers didn’t say.

“It’s been one mess after another,” Mikalsen said.

And Palm and Evers can’t hide behind the narrative that “no one could prepare” for such a pandemic, Nass’ spokesman said.

“Our state DHS is literally the entity we have paid thousands and thousands of dollars to do pandemic planning over the past decades,” Mikalsen said. “They failed to be prepared.”

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