Inslee: 'Taking the politics out of public health' over future of Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

The controversy over the future of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has reached all the way up to the governor’s desk. Governor Jay Inslee signed a proclamation on Monday that he said takes the “politics out of public health.”

“This proclamation puts a pause on efforts to terminate a health district or a city-county health department, such as what is currently taking place in Pierce County,” said Inslee. “This pause is necessary to ensure that we have a continuity and stability of public health efforts throughout this pandemic. This pause will allow public health workers to focus their energies on the most challenging chapter yet of our pandemic response.”

The proclamation comes just a day before a vote was scheduled in the Pierce County Council. The proposal would break an agreement between the City of Tacoma and Pierce County to share a joint health department.

The ordinance suggests the agreement, which was started back in 1972 between the city and the county, would continue to stand through the rest of next year. County Councilmember Pam Roach (R), who sponsored the bill previously, told Q13 News that the changes will give the people of Pierce County a stronger voice.

Instead of reporting to an appointed Board of Health, Roach said public health leaders in the county will report directly to elected leaders, which include the Pierce County Council and Executive.

Chelsea Lawyer is a supporter of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department after she received services through the Nurse-Family Partnership during and after her first pregnancy.

“To try and shift [Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department] during a pandemic, when there’s so many uncertainties already, was just I feel like mind blowing to me," Lawyer said.

She also runs a support group for Mothers of Color, which has a platform on Instagram called “Being the Village.”

Derek Young who is the Executive Pro Tem on the Pierce County Council and the Vice-Chair for the TPCHD Board of Health said, “It’s coming as a relief because there was a lot of stress frankly everyone was under. We heard from thousands of constituents. Overwhelming majority, I saw handful that were supportive, but it’s mostly been in strong opposition to this and really confusion.”

Young believes the vote will be postponed now that a state proclamation has been signed.

“The governor has given us an opportunity to start over, and we can move forward for the duration of this pandemic, wait until it’s solidly in our rearview mirror before we undertake any further conversation about governance,” said Young.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Washington State Republican Party is calling the proclamation a “power grab” and said the governor is “well overstepping his authority.”

“For Governor Inslee to use the power grab of the pandemic, this is an action that would take effect in a year but he doesn’t have the authority to tell a local government that they can’t do this,” said Chairman Caleb Heimlich.

Inslee said there are exceptions to the proclamation. He said if all parties of the joint health department or health district agree to the termination then it would be allowed. Or, if a party wants to terminate an agreement, they can do so if they obtain approval from the State Department of Health.

“Right now these districts are launching the extraordinary task of launching vaccines and we can’t distract or demoralize the staff or undermine public trust in this precarious moment,” said Inslee.