Public health could do with less politics | Opinion

This editorial was published by the Tri-City Herald of Kennewick.

An effort to help keep politics out of public health decisions is gaining steam in Benton and Franklin counties, and it is critical people step up to serve.

Several new openings soon will be added to the bicounty health district board in order to bring much-needed diversity and medical expertise to the group. But for improvements to be made, a wide range of candidates must apply.

The last thing our community needs is for political groups to cherry-pick applicants from their membership — and then have those picks end up the only names submitted.

Such a situation would completely undermine the intent behind the Washington state law requiring health board expansions.

In 2021, state lawmakers approved Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1152, which requires local health boards to include an equal number of non-elected and elected officials by July 1, 2022.

The new requirement emerged after a number of public health officers became targets of abuse for supporting the expert, medical advice on mask mandates and other requirements during the height of COVID-19.

In the Tri-Cities, Dr. Amy Person was under constant, unnecessary and often ugly criticism for making decisions that aligned with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials.

She often had to put up with bullying from people who didn’t like her message of encouraging people to wear masks and practice social distancing. There was even a petition launched to try and oust her, which fortunately failed. We don’t know how she put up with the hostility, but we are grateful that she did.

At one point during the pandemic there were vacancies for health officers in counties all over the state, including Yakima, Walla Walla, Whatcom, Lewis, Mason, Chelan-Douglas, Okanogan and Spokane. Many of these dedicated employees were exhausted, sick of the pressure and left their posts.

In Spokane County, health officer Dr. Bob Lutz was fired. At the time, he said through his attorney that he believed his termination was politically motivated in retaliation for unpopular COVID-19 decisions, according to the Spokesman-Review.

All this turmoil led to the Legislature deciding that local health district boards need a balance so they aren’t led solely by politicians.

Currently, the Benton Franklin Health District Board is comprised of six Benton and Franklin county commissioners and none are medical professionals or experts in health care.

Jason Zaccaria, health district administrator, said a committee has been formed that includes himself, Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin, Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck and other health district staff members who will begin meeting soon to prepare the application process.

He said it isn’t ready yet, but people should stay tuned because it is coming.

Zaccaria said he expects the group, known as the 1152 Committee, will be meeting frequently in the next few weeks and it will be the committee’s job to screen the applicants. Then, the county commissions on both sides of the river will have to confirm those appointments.

Under the new state law, the additional health board members must come from certain categories, including medical professionals — particularly physicians, nurses and hospital administrators — as well as consumers, especially those who have faced significant health inequities.

Other stakeholders, such as business and nonprofit leaders, also are encouraged to be in the mix.

When E2SHB 1152 was first approved, we said the new idea was well intended. But, we feared that these categories were so broad it would be easy to add non-elected officials who have a certain political bent — defeating the purpose behind the new law.

It’s no secret the Tri-Cities is still divided over state COVID-19 mandates — just look at the lingering unrest in Richland over the attempt by three school board members to defy the state mask mandate.

We would hate to see such animosity spill over to the health board expansion process.

That’s why the community needs neutral, qualified candidates to apply for those new positions when the time comes. It would be a shame if a new law designed to make sure politics doesn’t get in the way of sound medical advice ends up accomplishing the opposite.

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