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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I’m here for the long-haul’: Spokane County health board hires Dr. Francisco Velázquez as health officer

Dr. Francisco Velazquez has been hired to be the health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District. He has served as interim health officer since November.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane Regional Health District board on Wednesday decided to keep Dr. Francisco Velázquez as the county’s permanent health officer.

Velázquez had been serving as interim health officer since November.

He took over the job after Health District Administrator Amelia Clark – and then the Board of Health – fired health officer Dr. Bob Lutz. Lutz had been leading the region’s COVID-19 response and had served as health officer since 2017.

The Board of Health unanimously approved Velázquez’ hiring.

“From a personal perspective, being able to contribute to the community in an area where I have some skills that are useful, in a job that is very important for the community, is an honor and a pleasure,” Velázquez said. “Not every endeavor that we do has the same community impact.”

Velázquez will earn $247,309 a year as health officer. According to minutes from a 2017 Board of Health meeting, Lutz’ initial salary was $83.48 an hour. If Lutz worked a 40-hour week, he may have earned roughly $173,600 annually when he started.

Before announcing its decision Wednesday, the Board of Health had kept its hiring process secret, refusing to release the names of the two applicants who qualified – and were interviewed – for the position.

“It is SRHD policy, and an HR industry standard, to not disclose the names of applicants other than to the members of the immediate interview team,” health district spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins said in an email.

The Board of Health has disclosed candidate names in the past.

For instance, in 2009 the Board of Health hired Dr. Joel McCullough as health officer after announcing that he and Dr. Rachel Herlihy were the two finalists. It’s common for public boards or local government leaders to announce finalists for prominent positions and even conduct candidate interviews in public meetings.

Mary Kuney, the Board of Health’s chair and a Spokane County commissioner, said it’s not unusual to hide the names of candidates from the public. She noted that she and the other county commissioners didn’t reveal candidate names this winter when hiring a new CEO.

Breean Beggs, a Board of Health member and Spokane’s City Council president, said he didn’t agree with the decision to withhold candidate names.

“I didn’t see a downside of allowing the public to be more involved,” he said.

Beggs said he doesn’t know the names of the health officer candidates and didn’t learn Velázquez was one until the executive session immediately before the Board of Health’s public meeting. Only the board’s executive committee knew who any of the candidates were before Wednesday.

“It seems like it would be important for board members to have an opportunity to meet the candidates,” Beggs said.

Even though he wishes the hiring process had been more transparent, Beggs said he thinks Velázquez will be a good health officer.

“I’m mostly going to assess Dr. Velázquez from the last year of work that he’s done, and he seems like he’s been doing a good job leading as a public health officer,” Beggs said, noting that Velázquez is especially good at explaining science and medicine to the public. “He seemed to have the right demeanor that we need right now.”

The Board of Health didn’t have many options to choose from when picking a health officer. Despite hiring a firm to conduct a national search, there were only eight applicants. Clark, the health district administrator, determined two of the eight were qualified for the position. The board’s executive committee then interviewed the two candidates Friday.

Beggs said he thinks it’s possible the health district saw fewer applicants due to last year’s highly publicized and criticized firing of Lutz.

Velázquez has extensive health care experience. He said his diverse background makes him a good fit for health officer.

“I do believe I have a fairly broad background that is actually fairly useful,” he said.

Velázquez has a master’s degree in health care management from Harvard University, as well as degrees from Universidad de Puerto Rico and Universidad del Central del Caribe School of Medicine.

Before coming to the health district, Velázquez had a wide range of health care industry jobs. He started out as a pathologist, is a licensed physician in Washington state and most recently has held leadership roles with large health care companies.

From 2012 to 2017, he was the president and CEO of Pathology Associates Medical Laboratory (PAML) in Spokane, a company that generated about $300 million annually, employed 1,600 people and tested medical samples collected in eight states.

Health officers who don’t hold a master’s in public health can serve provisionally for up to three years, but must receive special training from the Washington State Department of Health in order to serve beyond that three-year timeframe.

Velázquez said he will be doing that training. He also said that several county health officers in Washington lack a master’s in public health and noted 50%-60% of the courses he took while earning his master’s in health care management were the same courses public health master’s students took.

Velázquez said he plans on being health officer for a long time.

In addition to helping the county respond to the pandemic, he said the health district will need to focus on a slew of issues in the coming years, especially mental health, addiction, food insecurity and unequal access to health care between neighborhoods.

“I’m here for the long-haul,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”