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Search for Spokane health officer could be complicated by Washington House bill

Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman brought up concerns about House Bill 1152 changing the landscape of the board during a meeting on Thursday.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health deferred a decision on how to start the search for a new health officer until its next scheduled meeting due to a bill in the Washington State House that could change the composition of local health boards.

During the board meeting on Thursday, Administrative Officer Amelia Clark said she’s awaiting input from the board before she can start recruitment, months after the firing of former health officer Dr. Bob Lutz. Clark said she has a recruitment plan for both a local and national search for a candidate. Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman brought up concerns about House Bill 1152 changing the landscape of the board. He recommended waiting for clarity from the legislature before advertising the position because it could impact the pool of candidates.

“If we’re going to spend close to $30,000 on a search we should at least wait until we can tell these candidates with some clarity if it’s a long-term position or if it’s two years before they have to have some sort of evaluation,” Freeman said during the meeting.

The bill reads, in part:

“The lack of expertise and lived experience on local health boards has led to politics infecting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic with local public health department leaders and workers resigning, retiring, or being fired, and communities being left sick and vulnerable. The legislature therefore intends for Washington to have local health boards that balance representation of elected officials and nonelected people with a diversity of expertise and lived experience and have a decision-making process that is inclusive and puts public health and people ahead of politics to improve health outcomes.”

The bill would require at least four board members who are not elected officials and must met requirements adopted by the state board of health.

The bill is sponsored by Spokane Representatives Marcus Riccelli (D) and Timm Ormsby (D), along with six others. As of Thursday, the bill was in the House Committee on Health Care and Wellness. There was a public hearing for the bill on Jan. 21.

After serving as health officer for more than three years and leading Spokane County through the coronavirus pandemic, Clark asked Dr. Bob Lutz to resign in late October 2020 and he was subsequently fired in a board meeting in early November. There was significant public outcry with thousands of emails submitted to the board in support of Dr. Lutz.

Lutz's replacement, Dr. Francisco Velazquez, was appointment immediately after his firing. Velazquez is currently working part-time as the county's health officer. 

According to his LinkedIn profile, he obtained his M.D. at the Universidad Central del Caribe in Puerto Rico, then later a master's degree in healthcare management from Harvard University.

He was formerly the president and CEO of Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories, a Spokane-based lab company.

The SRHD Board of Health is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 25.


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