Arkansas Department of Health (ADH)

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) exercises supervision over all matters pertaining to the health of Arkansas’s citizens, from food safety and sanitation to hospitals and medicine.

The first state board of health was actually the Little Rock (Pulaski County) board of health, which sprang into action in 1878 in the face of a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, Louisiana, and fears that refugees could bring the disease into Arkansas; the Little Rock board was turned into the state board by Governor William Read Miller the following year. In 1881, the state legislature created an official state board of health, though it was inactive until 1897, when smallpox appeared in the state.

Act 96 of 1913 created a permanent state board of health “for the protection of the public health, and for the general amelioration of the sanitary and hygienic considerations within the state, for the suppression and prevention of infections, contagions, and communicable diseases, and for the proper enforcement of quarantine, isolation, and control of such diseases.” The board was to consist of graduates “of a legally constituted and reputable medical college and of at least seven years’ experience in the practice of his profession” in Arkansas.” The same act also created within the board a Bureau of Vital Statistics for registering births and deaths as well as a laboratory for the analysis of food and drugs and the enforcement of food and drug laws. Act 96, however, stipulated that the board of health “shall not regulate the practice of medicine or healing, nor interfere with the right of any citizen to employ the practitioner of his choice.” County boards of health were dissolved, replaced by a county health officer. In 1959, the state legislature altered the make-up of the board to include a dentist, pharmacist, and a nurse; two years later, it was altered yet again to include a professional engineer.

Disease prevention through education, especially prevention of chronic disease, became a large focus of the ADH, which undertook education campaigns regarding immunization, heart disease, and tobacco-related illness. Drug and alcohol abuse fell under the purview of the ADH in 1993, when the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention was transferred from the Arkansas Department of Human Services (ADHS) to the ADH; in 1999, the Community Alcohol Safety Program was transferred from the Arkansas Department of Transportation to the ADH. The ADH attracted national attention after Act 1220 of 2003 created the Child Health Advisory Committee within the ADH to monitor and combat childhood obesity and related illnesses.

In April 2005, the Department of Health, which had been in a state of instability during the previous years, lost its Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments certification from the Federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In response to this and other problems afflicting the agency, Act 1954 of 2005 merged the ADH with the ADHS, creating the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services, to “provide for administrative cost savings in the delivery of health-related programs by combining overlapping functions and eliminating duplications of functions” of the respective departments. However, this change was undone soon after Mike Beebe took office as governor, with the governor signing an executive order to that effect in May 2007, claiming that the administrative issues that necessitated their merger had been resolved and that the respective agencies would now possess a “clearer focus and a more sharply defined mission.” In 2017, the Arkansas Office of Health Information Technology was administratively moved to the ADH.

For additional information:
Arkansas Department of Health. (accessed November 30, 2023).

Scholle, Sarah Hudson. The Pain in Prevention: A History of Public Health in Arkansas. Little Rock: Arkansas Department of Health, 1990.

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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