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Spokane Board of Health defers race-equity resolution decision

UPDATED: Thu., June 25, 2020

Spokane Regional Health building is shown Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The regional health board decided Thursday to defer a decision on a race-equity resolution.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Spokane Regional Health building is shown Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The regional health board decided Thursday to defer a decision on a race-equity resolution. (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Rebecca White and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Regional Health Board voted to table temporarily a resolution against racism and inequity in healthcare, sending it to a committee to be reviewed before voting on it next month.

The resolution acknowledges that COVID-19 brought health inequities Black, Indigenous and people of color have experienced for centuries to the forefront and that other Americans’ privilege may make it difficult for them to understand the full impacts of racism on everyday life. It also outlines several ways the health district will address inequities, such as using a health equity lens, including underrepresented communities in policy decisions and hiring people that reflect the culture, race and language of the community it serves.

Spokane Regional Board of Health Chair Ben Wick, who is also the mayor of Spokane Valley, said during the meeting that most items go through the policy committee before being voted on and suggested the equity resolution be discussed there before the board considers it.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, also a health board member, said he was concerned sending it to the board’s policy committee could result in a delay. The committee hasn’t met this year, mostly due to COVID-19, and previous meetings he’s led were sparsely attended, he said.

Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, the only Black member of the Board of Health, also shared concerns about delaying the resolution, saying Black and Indigenous people had waited long enough.

“This has been going on for a long time,” she said. We “probably should have taken a stand a long time ago, because it is health-related. So let’s look at it, but don’t lose sight of it.”

Every Board of Health member that is on the policy committee promised to attend it, and every board member present, including Beggs and Wilkerson, agreed to wait to vote on the resolution until the July 30 meeting. Most members also expressed their support for the resolution before they agreed to wait.

Spokane Valley Councilwoman Linda Thompson invited Wilkerson to attend the policy committee and said she wanted to include people of color in the process as much as possible.

“I totally agree that time is of the essence,” Thompson said. “But I want to make sure that we have it right and (we’re) respectful, for our community and our people of color and Indigenous people. The people who matter have to be at our discussion.”

In a phone call after the meeting, Wilkerson said the resolution didn’t seem controversial and is based in fact. She said she doesn’t see why it was delayed and noted that the health district is one of the few large agencies that can make a sincere statement about equity, since it has proven its commitment over years of work to understand the health needs of the entire community.

“The health district can back up their statement because they’ve done the work,” Wilkerson said. “That’s why I’m a little disappointed on that level. I don’t know what else they need to know.”

If it does pass next month, she hopes Board of Health members, most of whom are local city or county leaders, will use a health equity lens when looking at their communities and that approach will trickle down.

The resolution also has the support of the local Spokane Alliance, a group of congregations, unions and student and community organizations, which put out a statement this week calling on the Board of Health to adopt it.

“It would be akin to malpractice for the health board to not address the health impact of racism. We look forward to working with the SRHD to expand the common good for all in Spokane County,” a statement from the alliance says.

The resolution also has the support of both deans of the region’s two medical schools.

“As the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, our name bears the legacy of an African American man who aspired to create more educational opportunity and health care access for all,” John Tomkowiak, dean of the WSU College of Medicine, said in a news release. “While we must acknowledge that health care has been subject to racism and bias, which has helped create a public health crisis among BIPOC, we have the opportunity to stop history from repeating itself.”

Darryl Potyk, dean of the University of Washington’s Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, or WWAMI, program in Spokane, also supports the resolution.

“Health care disparities are getting more attention, it’s time now to turn our attention to the root cause of disparate health outcomes, to focus on the systemic racism in our society,” he said in a statement.

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz points to the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of how inequities existed long before in public health.

“The health district has been involved in a lot of internal work for a number of years, and there’s a recognition that racism is a public health issue. It’s an upstream systemic issue,” Lutz told reporters on Wednesday.

Lutz said the pandemic particularly points to the inequities in public health.

“This is something we believe essential to address the root causes of the inequities that exist across our country,” Lutz said.

In the resolution the health district pledged to look at both current and new programs, policies as well as interventions, with a health equity lens. It will also engage the community, partners and local jurisdictions to develop public policies to eliminate health inequality, and allow organizations and individual community members most impacted by racism to participate in decision making.

It will also promote health equity by providing health education, health communications and other public information about community health status and needs in the context of health equity. One example is focusing on determinants of health instead of just individuals’ health behavior. It promises to champion transformative change by supporting staff’s professional development in areas of health equity, cultural competency and anti-racism. Lastly, the health district will recruit and hire a workforce that reflects the demographic, cultures and languages of the populations it serves.

The Board will vote on this proposal July 30 at their normal 12:30 meeting, which can be livestreamed online.

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