Rep. Joe Schmick: Health care decisions are best made locally

As the ranking Republican on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, I'm working hard to make health care more affordable and accessible to our citizens.  Anyone who has worked in the health care industry can attest to what an uphill battle this is, with many layers of bureaucracy.

A few bright spots in our current health care system are our local health departments and boards of health.

At a time when many Eastern Washington citizens feel disenfranchised by the decisions being made in Olympia, it can be comforting to know that locally elected county officials have general control over health boards and departments.  While we all want the best health care possible no matter where we live, the values, principles, and priorities of Garfield County differ significantly from King County.

Last fall, the board of the Spokane Regional Health District voted to fire its health officer following a variety of professional misconduct allegations.  There was disagreement over the timeliness of dismissing their medical director in the midst of a pandemic.

Two bills have been introduced this session that would alter the makeup and oversight of our health departments across the state.

House Bill 1152 would eliminate health departments from how they exist today and reform them into “regionalized” health districts with a minimum of 250,000 citizens represented.

This poses a serious problem for our smaller counties.  For example, in rural southeast Washington, counties like Asotin, Garfield, Walla Walla, Franklin, and Whitman would all have to join together to meet this 250,000 threshold.  Think about how large a geographical area this would be.  The normal functions of a health department – class B water inspections, restaurant inspections, etc. – would be very difficult to provide locally.

In addition, this bill changes the makeup of the health districts and how local health officers are hired and fired.  Instead of local county officials making these decisions, the “hire/fire” process would be done from Olympia via the Secretary of Health, who serves at the pleasure of the governor.

In effect, Gov. Jay Inslee would have de facto control over all health districts.

Is this what we want for our local health decisions and the delivery of services?  In all my years' service in the 9th Legislative District, I have never heard one complaint about our local health districts.  They do a fine job.

Another bad bill is House Bill 1110.  While it doesn't completely do away with the current system, it takes control away from the local county commissioners and specifically prescribes who sits on the board.

What's troubling to me is this is all being done under the guise of “removing politics from our health care policy.”  But that's not the reality these two bills will create.  The reality is that some folks don't like the “politics” of their own local area and seek to replace it with Olympia politics.

This is bad governance and sets a dangerous precedent.  If local elected officials mess up, they have the ultimate accountability test in their next election.

If Gov. Inslee's appointees mess up, who holds them accountable?  Just remember, his appointee to head the state's Employment Security Department was at the helm last summer when the state lost hundreds of millions of dollars in a COVID scam originating from Nigeria.  And she held her job – with no repercussions – until just recently when she accepted a position in the Biden Administration.

What's the old adage?  If it's not broke, don't fix it.  At a time when the coronavirus continues to impact all of our daily lives, do we really want to upend the entire local health department system?

If you're fine with politics in Olympia controlling local health decisions, you might be fine with these two bills becoming law.  But if you value local control, and believe health care priorities, decisions, and services are best done locally, please exercise your rights and oppose this legislation.

I urge concerned citizens to call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000, or contact members of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee here:  Tell them to vote “no” on HB 1110 and 1152.  Let's keep our local health boards and departments from falling prey to Olympia politics.


(Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, is the ranking Republican on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.)

State Representative Joe Schmick, 9th Legislative District
426B Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(253) 275-1425 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000