Disputed health measure overhauled

Some officials reserve judgment

A regional health care bill that had North Olympic Peninsula elected officials and health care officers up in arms over loss of local control is being considered in revised form in the state Senate.

The legislation has met with generally positive reviews, especially for retaining county health officers and health departments and adding an as yet undetermined infusion of funds for public health care statewide.

But concerns remain, some elected officials said this week.

And the Peninsula’s 24th District legislative delegation is split over the bill.

House Bill 1152, supported by state Democratic Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, was approved 56-41 by the House on March 8, a day before bills had to move out of their chambers of origin or die.

It went through several revisions between Feb. 22 and March 8, he said.

“What I think it will do is hopefully provide a structure,” Tharinger said, adding Thursday that funding will be approved as part of a new state budget.

“It’s unclear what those numbers will be, and that’s happening in the budget process right now,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles said Thursday he had not read the new bill with the rush of legislative business, relying on a letter signed by several Peninsula jurisdictions before the new version of the bill was created to vote against it.

“I had information that that’s what folks in the district wanted,” he said.

“It did pass, so no harm, no foul.”

The bill had its first reading in the Senate on March 10 in the Health and Long Term Care Committee, which counts among its members Democratic State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim.

A companion Senate bill did not survive the cut.

HB 1152 has its first hearing before Van De Wege’s committee Wednesday, which is when he said he will review the details. He, too, had not read newest version.

He was already opposed to the old one.

He still called the bill a “deflection” of responsibility by the state Department of Health and Gov. Jay Inslee for their actions during the pandemic.

Inslee requested the legislation.

“The funding is coming to local public health, I hope, and doesn’t need this bill for that to happen,” Van De Wege added.

HB 1152 establishes four regional public health district “centers,” funding for which is nullified unless at least $60 million is allocated for the centers in the budget by June 30.

A statewide Foundational Public Health Services Steering Committee and a public health advisory board would be named and four regional health officers hired, according to a bill report at www.leg.wa.gov.

The bill modifies the composition of boards of health in counties with populations less than 800,000, adding a tribal member and a second person who receives public health services to boards in Clallam and Jefferson counties.

The role of the regional centers would be determined by the steering committee, which may coordinate shared services among health departments, provide health services and analyze options to implement shared services.

The state Department of Health would be required to allocate funding for shared services as recommended by the steering committee and approved by the advisory board.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke, who was opposed to the original bill, favors the new version with one qualification, he said Thursday.

“I do support the bill that passed the House as long as it is adequately funded,” he said in a text message.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, health funding “fell far short of what the needs were,” he said Wednesday.

“The biggest thing we can advocate for is to get the money to do the work,” Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry said Tuesday at a county board of health meeting.

Republican Clallam County Commissioner Bill Peach, a member of the Washington State Association of Counties Legislative Steering Committee, said Thursday the revised bill was unanimously supported by the committee, comprised of representatives from each of the state’s 39 counties.

“The concept of local jurisdiction will still be there,” Peach said at the meeting.

“The ability of local administration with a health officer is going to continue.”

Peach said regions would try to coordinate existing resources for the counties that need them.

“The good news is, instead of having this command-and-control approach, there is a recognition that a larger body should be monitoring where there are resources that aren’t available with a view toward what can be done in the future, of what we can do to make those resources available, which, in my view, is a tremendous improvement.”

Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson remained skeptical of the legislation.

“We still have a regional health officer,” he said at the meeting. “How that interfaces, how that works, I don’t know,” Johnson said, adding that, whether funding goes to health care or “some hierarchy somewhere,” is ill defined.

“To me, the most important part is yet to come, which is, let’s analyze what the real problem is, how we should organize to fix the problems,” he said.

“It’s still a work in progress.”

Chapman said he based his vote on a letter written opposing the original legislation that was signed by the boards of health, hospital boards, city councils and boards of commissioners in Clallam and Jefferson counties — before the new version of the bill came out.

The writer, Democratic Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean, said Thursday the bill is “a whole lot better” than it was, though she still has concerns.

“It’s unclear what the benefit will be at the local level,” she said.

“We don’t anticipate getting a lot of new service and capacity, just more bureaucracy.”

“I would not say we support it, but we are certainly not opposed to it.

“We’d much rather put it off until the next session, when we have lessons learned from the pandemic.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].