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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill to change composition of public health boards receives strong support in public hearing

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, lower right, talks with Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, lower left, on the House floor, in this February 2020 photo.  (Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – Local public health boards may become a little less political if a bill sponsored by Spokane Rep. Marcus Riccelli passes the state Legislature.

A bill that would require local public health boards to include at least half of nonelected officials received its first public hearing on Monday, with many supporters of the bill citing the firing of former Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz as the reason for needing a change.

“When politics affects public health, we have problems,” Riccelli told the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

The bill would require each local health board to include at least four nonelected members. The number of nonelected officials must be at least equal to the number of elected officials. They must come from these categories:

  • Health care providers or employees of health care facilities.
  • People with experience with public health, such as representatives of tribal governments, epidemiologists, community health workers, or those with advanced degrees in public health.
  • Consumers of public health who have faced significant health inequities.
  • Other community stakeholders, such as community-
  • based organizations that work with those experiencing health inequities.

The board members selected from these categories must be approved by a majority vote of the elected officials on the board in an appointment process set out by the State Board of Health. The current boards of health would have six months after the law goes into effect in June to change their makeup.

“Balancing our health boards will ensure public health and people is put over politics,” Riccelli said Monday.

Riccelli drafted legislation after the firing of Lutz in November. Many in Spokane were frustrated with the decision of the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health to fire Lutz and pointed to the increased politicization of public health.

Ben Stuckart, former Spokane City Council president, told the committee this bill addresses many of the structural issues that led to his firing, he said.

“The community’s voice should be just as loud and involved as the political voices,” Stuckart said.

Current state law requires elected officials to constitute the majority of a local health board.

For counties with a home rule charter, the county legislative authority establishes a local board of health and its membership and selection process.

In counties without a home rule charter, the board of county commissioners constitutes the local board of health, unless they are part of a multicounty health district such as the Northeast Tri County Health District in northeast Washington.

The need to better support local public health boards is also a priority of Gov. Jay Inslee this legislative session. In December, Inslee proposed restructuring local public health system in a more regional way, allowing different counties to coordinate services. Riccelli is also sponsoring that legislation, which received its first committee hearing last week.

Michael Dunn, superintendent of NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101 in Spokane, said he felt the need to speak in favor of this bill because of his experience working closely with public health officers and administrators during the past 11 months.

Dunn said there should be a balance on local public health boards, as it provides a “firewall” between politics and public health. Dunn said he and other superintendents experienced “chaos” in response to the “sudden and politically driven” decision to terminate Lutz.

By including those who disproportionately experience negative health outcomes, Maria Courogen, of the state Department of Health, said this bill could reduce health inequities.

The voice of the community is critical in making public health decisions, Courogen said.

“These voices need to not only be heard but contribute in meaningful ways to decision-making,” she said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly describe the bill, which requires local public health boards to have at least an equal number of nonelected officials.

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.