A new coalition of activists and community leaders pledged Thursday to harness community outrage over the firing of Spokane County’s health officer into coherent action.
In response to the ouster of Dr. Bob Lutz, the Public Health Action Coalition Team of Spokane (PHACTS) will immediately focus efforts on filing complaints with state agencies, including the state Board of Health.
But the coalition will also advocate for broader, systemic changes to public health in Spokane and across Washington, including a limit on the number of politicians who serve on local boards of health.
The coalition was founded by former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund co-founder Sharon Smith and Jerrie Allard, owner of the management consultant firm Impact Strategies.
Its members include public health experts, ethicists and equity advocates who take issue with the dismissal of Lutz, the outspoken face of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is an opportunity to take all the negative things that have happened here and really move forward as a community,” said Priyanka Bushana, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience and president of the Health Sciences Student Advocacy Association at Washington State University’s Health Sciences Campus in Spokane.
After a confusing week in which it was unclear who was serving as the county’s health officer, Lutz was formally fired on Nov. 5. Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark petitioned the board to remove Lutz, whom she alleged was routinely insubordinate, misspent health district funds and wrote public op-eds without Board of Health approval. Lutz denied the allegations.
Stuckart and his peers already filed complaints with the State Board of Health earlier this month, arguing that Clark violated state law by removing Lutz from his post prior to the Board of Health’s approval. Stuckart served on the health board for several years when he was on the Spokane City Council.
The coalition’s steering committee will meet on Friday to discuss other potential avenues at the state level for complaints. They could also call for other forms of direct and immediate action, such as encouraging the public to comment at Board of Health meetings, Stuckart said.
“There were 5,000 pages of comments to the Board of Health, 99.9% of them in favor of not firing Dr. Lutz,” Stuckart said. “That’s an extraordinary number of comments. We’ve never seen the public outrage this much.”
The coalition’s members don’t believe it is likely Lutz could return as health officer, but Stuckart said the group’s efforts are more focused on “holding people accountable for those actions and making changes in the law so it doesn’t happen again.”
The coalition is speaking with legislators across the state to encourage changes in Washington law, Stuckart said, including a way to minimize the influence of politics in public health decisions.
The Board of Health is made up of all three Spokane County Commissioners, three members of the Spokane City Council, two members of the Spokane Valley City Council, and a representative of the other cities and towns in Spokane County. The County Commissioners appoint three community members to serve on the board.
“I could see a bill being sponsored this session that would really mandate that at least half of a board’s membership be made up of public health experts,” Stuckart said.
The area’s future doctors and health professionals agree, according to Bushana.
“I think that the students I represent really hope to see health-related decisions made by health professionals who have the training to appropriately assess those decisions and the impacts of them,” Bushana said.
Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, chair of the Board of Health, declined to comment on Thursday. A spokesperson for the Spokane Regional Health District did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday.
Smith told The Spokesman-Review that the effort aligned with the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund’s work to alleviate poverty, which is tightly linked to health.
“There are a lot of really powerless people trying to perform public health in our community against a system and a makeup that doesn’t give them the opportunity to do that,” Smith said.
The coalition is in the fight for the “long haul,” she added.
“We’ll stick with this effort until we see change,” Smith said.
The coalition also pledged to hold the board of health accountable to its own resolution adopted earlier this year to “build the internal infrastructure to advance health equity by applying a health equity lens to current and new programs, policies, services, and interventions.”
“Right now we are able to harness the community outrage and concern that has happened in the past couple of weeks, but we also have power in the spread of our organization – there are a lot of groups that focus specifically on equity,” Bushana said.
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