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Washington bill aims to reduce political influence on local boards of health

The proposal comes as Spokane and other health districts have endured controversy surrounding the handling of the pandemic.

SPOKANE, Wash — A proposal being considered in Olympia would fundamentally change the makeup of local health boards in an attempt to reduce the influence of politics on those boards' decisions.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of the firing of Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, which some speculated was influenced by political disagreements between Lutz, health district administrator Amelia Clark, and other local leaders.

Health boards are in charge of overseeing health districts, and they can make decisions about hiring and firing health officers and administrators. 

Under current law, they're made up primarily of county commissioners. Those commissioners can choose to add more people to the board. In Spokane, that includes six other elected leaders and three members who aren't elected officials.

Lutz's firing and the surrounding chaos led many, like State Representative Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane), to investigate whether health boards are overly political in nature.

"I think the consequences are clear," said Riccelli in an interview with KREM. "Medicine and science don't lead in times when they should be leading."

He and several other representatives have proposed changing the state law. The current proposal would require that at least half of every board of health is made up of non-politicians.

The new members would have to fit one of four categories, drawing equally from each: health care providers, public health workers, people who have experienced inequity in healthcare, or general community stakeholders like non-profit or business leaders.

"The diversity of experience and lived experience is important," said Riccelli. "We've got to make sure not only there are healthcare representatives and public health representatives, but people with lived experience. Public health affects some of our most marginalized communities, some of our most vulnerable populations, and that is also an important piece, to make sure their voices are being heard and represented on these boards."

In Spokane's case, this would mean the board would likely grow to 18 people to make an even number of elected and unelected members. However, commissioners could also opt to reduce the number of elected members and then match that number with un-elected ones.

Riccelli said other counties have similar concerns to Spokane's, so making health boards less political is a statewide issue right now. This particular bill may not be the final law, but he's optimistic something like it will be included in legislation this session.

"I think we'll move forward on something around the governance issue. I'm feeling confident that there's a lot of energy, enthusiasm around it, particularly in a pandemic," he said. "We've really shown the importance of balancing our health boards with non-elected officials. It's just common sense, right? We don't want people who have no background, sometimes, in public health or healthcare to be making all the decisions."

So far, the bill has been introduced and had a hearing in the House Committee on Health Care & Wellness, but has not yet come to any vote.

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