February 27, 2009 in City

Health district finalists selected

Director’s position vacant since 2006
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Two physicians have been selected as finalists to lead the Spokane Regional Health District after a 2 1/2-year vacancy.

Health board members have scheduled a special meeting for March 13 in anticipation of making a contract offer.

The finalists are Dr. Joel McCullough, a former division director of the Chicago Department of Health who now lives in Portland, and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, of the Utah Department of Health.

The candidates will meet the health district’s executive management team along with representatives of the Spokane County Medical Society. The board, which discussed its job search during a meeting Thursday, intends to use feedback from the groups to help it make a decision.

Bringing the medical society into the loop, along with appointing new board member Dr. Bob Lutz as a liaison, may defuse some of the disagreements between the community’s corps of physicians and the local health board.

For months the two sides have been expressing disagreement on public health management.

The board is taking testimony on whether to change the leadership structure of the health district. Some have advocated diluting the authority of the health officer by splitting top responsibilities with an administrator.

Such a departure from the current setup worries many in the medical society. It has asked the board, made of nine elected county and regional city representatives along with three at-large appointments, to hire a public health physician to lead the agency and ensure that decisions are driven by science and what’s good for public health rather than dollars.

As the board moved ahead with plans to revisit the leadership structure, the medical society took its concerns to state Sen. Chris Marr for legislative action.

Marr, who has served as an Empire Health Services director overseeing the operations of Deaconess Medical Center, introduced a bill that would remove most of the elected officials from the board and replace them with physicians, other health professionals and members of the business community.

The bill has drawn the ire of board members, who cast a symbolic vote Thursday objecting to what they considered Marr’s meddling in local affairs.

Marr has called the board dysfunctional and politicized. He has said its inability to hire a health officer in the wake of the controversial firing of Dr. Kim Thorburn in November 2006 has endangered Spokane’s readiness for a major public health problem such as a disease outbreak.

His bill, which has been amended several times, now applies only to Spokane.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner worried that Marr’s bill would create conflicts of interest. The bill requires two board members be chosen from local chambers of commerce, including one person from the restaurant industry and one from the building industry. Such businesses are subject to health district regulation.

Supporters of the bill say such businesses already exert influence, usually through private conversations and campaign contributions to local officials.

The bill was the subject of hearings this week, cleared a key committee and is on its way to a full vote on the Senate floor.

John Stucke can be reached at (509) 459-5419 or johnst@spokesman.com.


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