Gov. Christine Gregoire has appointed Dr. Kim Thorburn, Spokane County’s chief health official, to head up the state Board of Health.
The part-time appointment means Thorburn will lead the 10-member state board for three years, while still serving as director of the Spokane Regional Health District. The state panel makes recommendations to lawmakers, regulates some health issues, gathers data and offers public forums on health.
“It really is the broad work of public health,” Thorburn said Thursday.
One key task the board undertakes is compiling the biannual Washington State Health Report. Thorburn said that report should be a useful tool as the state tries to achieve Gregoire’s goals for health care: making Washington the healthiest state in the country, providing health care for all children, and reducing costs.
Reaching such goals means more than simply providing access to health care services, Thorburn said. It means identifying the parts of the population with health problems and targeting the root causes, like poverty or insufficient education.
“People who live in poverty, in almost all health indicators, have worse health, and it’s not solely related to having access to health care,” she said.
For example, she said, the board might look at the issue of high school dropouts and ways to fight that, since dropouts tend to use tobacco more than others.
The state board meets monthly, and members are paid a stipend for that day. She said her role as Spokane County’s top health officer will continue to be her top priority.
In a January address on the state of Spokane’s health, Thorburn recommended 10 initiatives to the district board, ranging from ways to expand sex education to combat sexually transmitted diseases to banning smoking in all public places. Thorburn’s wish list also included encouraging more exercise and healthier foods at area schools, more resources to treat drug addiction and universal access to health care services.
Thorburn has recently come into conflict with the district’s board of directors over a variety of issues.
The board gave her a no-confidence vote in December, urging her to take a more business-friendly approach to enforcing health rules. That conflict arose after Thorburn and former board member Kate McCaslin disagreed over the proper approach to enforcing regulations on coffee huts. McCaslin said at the time that it was part of Thorburn’s “continuing attitude” of disregarding the board’s desires.
Several months earlier, Thorburn had received a raise and an excellent performance review in a unanimous board vote, with McCaslin absent.
Thorburn said Thursday that she believes she’s been able to work well with the board in recent months. But board member Bob Apple, a Spokane city councilman who’s currently in a dispute with Thorburn over complaints at a restaurant he owns, said several board members have been disappointed in the relationship with Thorburn recently.
“There’s almost a negative attitude toward the board at this point,” Apple said. “She would not be my choice.”
Board chairman Dick Denneny said that differences between the board and Thorburn have been mostly based on conflicts in personalities and approach – not concerns over Thorburn’s abilities.
“There’s never been a question of her qualifications or ability to perform as a health official,” Denney said.