After state lawmakers vowed to pump more money into Washington's “woefully underfunded” public health system, Lewis County might already be seeing the start of that bolstered support.
This legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee requested that lawmakers consider a bill to restructure the state’s public health system, which largely relies on local boards of health composed of elected officials. The push was paired with a promise to ramp up funding to address inequities across the state.
And while the bill has been significantly altered — and is not yet on the governor’s desk for a signature — the $1.45 million set to flow into Lewis County from the Department of Health is likely a “downpayment” from the state, according to Public Health Director JP Anderson. He said the funds will likely continue flowing into the county’s board of health to assist with essential services, from COVID-19 responses to septic work.
The “very large amount of money,” Anderson told the board of health this week, will likely extend beyond the calendar year, and bring with it new requirements. He doesn’t anticipate those requirements to pose an issue, and said the board is looking to hire additional communicable disease staffing.
“I feel like the community has an expectation of us — after what’s happened with COVID — to be ready for whatever may come our way,” Anderson told The Chronicle. “And that’s kind of universal, and hopefully something everybody can see the value in and support.”
Through its countless revisions, HB 1152 gained more Republican support as it moved through the Legislature. While only two Republicans in the House voted “yes” to move the bill to the opposite chamber, four Republican senators cast their vote in support of the bill. That includes Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.
Braun could not be reached for comment by press deadline.
The amended bill would no longer create regional public health districts, originally aimed at coordinating shared services between local boards. Instead, a new public health advisory board would monitor and provide recommendations for Washington’s public health system. Most local boards of health would also be required to balance the voices of elected officials with those of public health or health care professionals, consumers and other community stakeholders — an attempt to insulate public health from local politics.
On Sunday, Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, called the bill a “labor of love and hard work and hair-pulling-out.” One message that has stayed consistent throughout months of debate is the need to ramp up funding for foundational public health services.
Still, many Republicans expressed concern about the bill, including Auburn’s Sen. Phil Fortunato, who said the bill would create another layer of bureaucracy. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told lawmakers that local boards of health in his district were functioning well, and that the proposal “appears to be an answer in search of a problem.”
Previously, Anderson had sounded alarm bells over the bill’s proposal to dissolve local boards of health completely, in favor of broader, regional districts. Now, things have changed.
“I think that the fundamental issue of local health jurisdictions remaining autonomous and being a health jurisdiction defined by county borders is safe, and will continue regardless of what happened with 1152,” Anderson said.