Taxpayers Can Ill Afford County Plan Proposed Takeover Of Independent Health District Raises Concerns About Public’s Health, Purses

Spokane County’s proposed hostile takeover of the health district would cost taxpayers at least $300,000 for higher employee insurance premiums, financial records show.

Takeover critics say that’s one more reason why the merger should be stopped.

A new state law gives counties the option of pulling health districts under their umbrellas starting next January. Two of three Spokane County commissioners have said the county can do a better job running the agency, and are expected to pass a resolution in late August authorizing the merger.

No one at the nowindependent health district supports the change. Most critics fear for their jobs if they speak out publicly.

Their views are supported by the secretary of the Washington Department of Health. Bruce Miyahara, the state’s top public health official, will visit Spokane on Wednesday out of concern that the takeover will jeopardize public health.

The Spokane County Health District has been independent for 25 years. A board that includes the three county commissioners, three Spokane City Council members and two small-town mayors oversees the district.

Financial figures obtained under the state open records law indicate the health district pays far less in employee insurance premiums than does Spokane County.

County officials were not available Friday to explain why. One reason could be that the county submitted more claims to insurers.

“Maybe they’ve had a bunch of sick people,” a health district official said.

The health district insures its 224 full-time employees for less than $950,000 a year. Spokane County’s costs to insure the same workers would be $1,237,076, according to a health district memo to the county.

If health district employees and their families opted for the county’s best insurance coverage, the extra costs to taxpayers could top a half-million dollars a year, the memo states.

County Commissioner Phil Harris was surprised.

“Maybe we ought to look at switching our people into their program,” he said.

But it’s doubtful that’s even possible.

The costs of putting the health district under the county is a secondary concern for most critics.

They fear public health policies would be politicized, resulting in the elimination of controversial social programs.

County Commissioner Steve Hasson already has suggested that the environmental health program - the department that regulates restaurants and septic tanks - should be placed under the county building department. The building department is a permitting agency, not a policy regulator, so joining the two functions would be unorthodox, Miyahara said.

Hasson could not be reached for comment.

Other agencies joining the fight against the takeover are the Spokane County Medical Society and Empire Health Services, the owner of Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center.

A citizens group also has been formed - Concerned Citizens for Public Health Protection. The group formerly was called SCAT (Spokane Citizens Against Takeover) but was renamed to rid the reference to animal droppings. It includes private citizens and health district employees.

The group’s organizer, insurance agency owner Ian Cunningham, said the health district is “widely admired and respected. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

“Public health decisions need to be made by people who are dedicated to public health issues,” he said. “That’s the best way to prevent political pressures from jeopardizing public health.”

Miyahara will attend a series of meetings Wednesday to voice his concerns over the takeover.

The first meeting is open to the public from 7 to 9 a.m. in rooms 265 and 268 at the Deaconess Health and Education Center Building, 910 W. 5th.

Miyahara also is trying to get a meeting with county commissioners, although he said Hasson turned him down.

While it appears there is no authority to stop the merger, Miyahara said the state would step in and run the health district if environmental and health regulations were short-circuited.

For example, if the county started approving more septic tanks and backed away from a legal commitment to install sewers, the state could intercede, he said.

“My concern is that attention to public health responsibilities not get lost in what appears to be a political issue,” Miyahara said.

“If development concerns appear to be overriding public health issues,” he said, “the state may need to get involved in…actually running the program.”

That could cost taxpayers more because they would have to pay the state.

Commissioner Harris said that won’t be necessary. He said he has “too damn much integrity” to set policies that favor developers and risk public health.

“I’d never vote for anything that would hurt our community medically, physically, whatever,” Harris said.

, DataTimes


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