Local leaders consider adjustments to regional health board policy

SPOKANE, Wash.– As Spokane County tracks record daily COVID-19 cases, the county is still without a full time health officer.

Dr. Frank Valazquez has been serving part-time as the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) interim health officer since Dr. Bob Lutz was terminated in early November. Without any indication of when this role could be filled permanently, local leaders are considering new policies they hope will better protect public health.

SRHD Board of Health member Breean Beggs was one of four board members who voted to retain Dr. Lutz. He told 4 News Now he believes politics were part of what influenced this termination.

“It seemed clear that the reasoning he was being terminated was for speaking his mind and his public expertise about public health. It seemed like a very poor reason in my opinion and a little bit dangerous,” Beggs said.

Representative Marcus Riccelli, who represents Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, said he sees the dangers of losing a health officer in the middle of a pandemic. That’s why he’s working on legislation that would require regional health boards have at least equal representation by politicians and medical experts. Riccelli acknowledged the important role politicians play on these boards, specifically pertaining to budgets, but he believes there needs to be more guidance from people with health backgrounds.

“We want the people with the expertise, the science background, the medical training, to be at the decision-making table,” Riccelli said.

Beggs said that’s one option, but his priorities go toward another option.

“The most important thing is to give the health officer protection from speaking his or her mind,” Beggs said. “I think that’s the thin I would tackle first is if they could never be fired or terminated or retaliated against for telling the community what they need to do from a health perspective.”

As 4 News Now previously reported, during the meeting where Lutz was fired, administrator Amelia Clark talked about Lutz using his role as health officer to give speeches and writing op-eds in the newspaper without health district authorization.

“Dr. Lutz has directly stated to me that he does not want to be part of a team, that he should not be micromanaged and should not report to anyone,” Clark said. Dr. Lutz said he doesn’t remember saying that and says letters from the community show that he’s able to work well with others.

Clark also said she received complaints about Lutz being at a BLM protest when he, as the health officer, was urging others to stay home.

Beggs said he plans to discuss a new policy providing new protections for the health officer at the upcoming board meeting in December. There is no action item on the agenda for this, but he wants to start the conversation. He said taking his policy to the legislature is another possible route.

“We are going to have to go back to basics and make clear delineations of who is the person who speaks for public health. It has to be a qualified public health medical officer who does not fear repercussions for speaking their truth,” Beggs said.

The next SRHD Board of Health meeting is December 3 at 12:30 p.m. That will be streaming online because it is a public meeting. Beggs said they expect to hear an update on the search for Spokane’s next health officer.

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