New public health coalition advocates for systematic changes

SPOKANE, Wash.– The disruption of the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) now has a group calling for change.

Late last month, the Spokane County health administrator Amelia Clark tried to fire Dr. Bob Lutz. At the time, he was serving as the county’s health officer. In early November, the regional board of health finally voted on the matter, ousting Dr. Lutz from his job leading the county through the pandemic.

Now, that board of elected officials and their appointees is getting more scrutiny than ever.

The Public Health Action Coalition Team of Spokane (PHACTS) recently formed. Ben Stuckart is one of the local stakeholders. He said now is the time to harness people’s frustration and calls for change to create that change.

“Instead of individually being outraged, it’s much better to have a coalition of people working toward a common goal and I guess that common goal that we really wrapped our arms around is that long-term systematic change, which is how do we change state law so that local boards of health are more representative of less politicians and more public health experts?” Stuckart said.

The SRHD Board of Health includes three Spokane County Commissioners, three Spokane City Council members, two Spokane Valley City Council members, one elected official representing small cities, and three citizen representatives appointed by commissioners.

Stuckart and members of the coalition believe adding more representatives with medical backgrounds would better serve the community.

“There is a lot at stake,” Stuckart said. “If you have experts in charge of regional health district that have no public health background, I think you risk overwhelming our hospitals and making decisions that aren’t based in science.”

That’s why the coalition is calling for a change in state law that would limit the number of politicians serving on local boards of health.

State Representative Marcus Riccelli told 4 News Now Friday that he is drafting a proposal that would not limit the number of politicians on a health board, but at least require those positions equal the number of representatives with health backgrounds. He expects to present that during the upcoming legislative session.

Stuckart was among the first to ask the Washington State Board of Health to investigate whether administrator Clark broke state law when she initially tried to fire Dr. Lutz without a public SRHD Board of Health vote. That state agency has now launched a preliminary investigation.

Stuckart said PHACTS members are also identifying other agencies to file complaints about the firing process of Dr. Lutz.

4 News Now reached out to regional board members and Clark for an interview to talk more about what the coalition is proposing and the criticism members are sharing. Breean Beggs and a spokesperson for Spokane County on behalf of the commissioners on the SRHD Board of Health responded, but were not available for interviews Friday. Both Beggs and commissioners have interviews scheduled with 4 News Now Monday. Look for continuing coverage that night at 5, 6 and 11 p.m.

A spokesperson for SRHD shared this statement Friday night:

“Although we cannot discuss details related to issues surrounding the District’s former health officer nor complaints filed against the District’s administrative officer, as advised by legal counsel, we can say that there are many, many people who remain committed and continue to work tirelessly at Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) every day to ensure the health and well-being of our community.

Every day, SRHD’s community health workers work with communities who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Public health nurses visit our homeless community daily to triage for COVID-19-like symptoms and provide isolation services. Hundreds more public health professionals continue to run vital public health programs that provide nutrition education, support for new parents, help for those suffering from addiction, address community inequities and provide many more services that have protected the health and wellbeing of our community for the past 50 years.

Our COVID-19 response team remains strong and resilient. Experts in epidemiology, emergency response, public health, disease investigation and immunizations are on the ground, focused on leading the community through the pandemic. Their passion has not wavered. They continue to work tirelessly every day.”

Those looking to be involved with PHACTS can email publichealthspokane@gmail.com.

RELATED: WA State Board of Health approves investigation against SRHD admin Amelia Clark