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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Riccelli joins Inslee to support funding and restructuring public health systems

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference on Nov. 30, 2020.  (Ted S. Warren)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues putting stress on public health, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday a legislative package that boosts funding and support for public health systems statewide.

The proposals include creating a new fund to improve public health programs in the long term, as well as restructuring local public health jurisdictions.

“A very important part of our economic recovery is our health care recovery as well,” Inslee said Thursday. “It is very clear that we need additional resources in public health.”

Inslee’s proposed budget for 2021-23 includes $397 million to provide resources to continue fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, including personal protective equipment and testing. It also includes a new monthly tax of about $3 on health insurance policies, which would be placed into a special fund for public health.

The new revenue source could pay for new data systems to track disease cases and hospital capacity, and partnerships with state and local health leaders, Inslee said.

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, called the measures “desperately needed.”

“Local public health jurisdictions across the state have been chronically underfunded,” Robinson said Thursday.

Republicans, however, worry about Inslee’s proposed tax increases.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, lead Republican on the Ways & Means Committee, said Thursday there is no need to raise taxes, especially on health care premiums, that she said will trickle down and affect families.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Wilson said.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, criticized the governor for creating the health care tax, which he said would hurt families.

The new tax is about $3 a month, which adds up to about $36 a year.

“Thirty-five to 40 dollars is a meaningful amount of money for a lot of people,” Stokesbary said on Friday.

Inslee also will support a legislative package that would restructure local public health systems. One piece will be legislation to create regional public health districts, as opposed to the current county districts, allowing different counties to coordinate services. It’s a plan he said will lead to more efficient and equitable public health outcomes.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Spokane Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli said. “We do need to connect the dots and work together to have a more comprehensive public health system.”

Riccelli will sponsor legislation to restructure and standardize local public health boards. His legislation will require that public health boards are split evenly between elected officials and those with medical expertise. Currently, state law requires local health boards to be made up of a majority of elected officials.

Riccelli has expressed disappointment in the firing of former Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz. But Spokane’s experience was not a one-off, Riccelli said.

“Politics has infected our public health,” he said.

In Tacoma, the Pierce County Council proposed breaking its county-city health department agreement. Inslee signed a proclamation Monday that put a pause on the termination of public health agreements.

According to a poll from the Associated Press released Tuesday, at least 181 state and local public health department leaders have resigned, retired or been fired during the pandemic. One in eight Americans lives in a community that has lost its local public health department leader during the pandemic, and top health officials in 20 states have left state-level departments.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems that already existed, Jeff Ketchel, executive director at the Washington State Public Health Association, told The Spokesman-Review earlier this week. As the population and the complexities of public health have increased, staffing and funding have decreased.

“Even prior to the pandemic, our readiness for public health emergencies has been decreased,” Riccelli said.

Robinson said local public health structures should be examined in short order.

“We want to be better positioned and better prepared for the next public health emergency,” Robinson said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.