TACOMA, Wash. - A bill to dissolve the Tacoma-Pierce County Health department passed through the county committee on Monday.
The proposal will head to further review and a vote of the full Pierce County Council. The Rules Committee voted 2-1 along party lines to recommend the proposal, but not without opposition from county residents.
Not one person during almost an hour of public comment said they support the proposal to reorganize the health department. Also, more than 400 pages of public comment were submitted to the county. One of the issues many opponents voiced during the committee’s virtual hearing is the bill’s timing.
“Now is not the time for playing politics with health care," said a Pierce County resident said. "This 11th hour surprise move will not strengthen our efforts. It will weaken them.”
“You have invited skepticism, resistance and suspicion by neglecting to mention your plan to your partner, the city of Tacoma or to the health department or to us the public you serve who is the most at stake at how you’re scheme plays out," another Pierce County resident said.
The proposal would end an agreement, set back in 1972, to have a joint city and county health department. Supporters, including County Councilmember Pam Roach, said the idea is to offer better representation to the people of Pierce County. Health officials would report to elected leaders, not an appointed council.
“We allow the public to have more involvement in the health department and the administration of the programs, not less,” said Roach.
City of Tacoma officials said the bill came as a surprise, especially for Catherine Ushka, councilmember, and chair of the Tacoma Pierce County Board of Health.
“Having served alongside with Chair Richardson and Councilmember Morale and the executive for three years now and never having this conversation come up whatsoever and to be blindsided at the last hour in the middle of December was quite a strike,” said Ushka.
The councilmember said the idea to dissolve the health department needs thorough conversation, not a hasty one.
“I think it’s always a good to review the way the government’s doing work and see if there’s a way to do it better, right? But doing it in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible and dangerous, quite frankly. Come July, let's all sit down at a table and start talking about this,” said Ushka.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards voiced a similar sentiment during the virtual hearing.
“I’m going to really ask you to pull back this ordinance as let’s have a conversation about why we’re going to make this move, why we think this move is important. And if it is really as good for the citizens as you say it is, then let’s make that argument, let’s make that case,” said Woodards.
Pierce County resident Milagros Thompson said life would be different for and her three-year-old son had it not been for a checkup at the health department.
“The biggest thing is that it saved my life, it saved my son’s life. And if it weren’t for my nurse Leah, I don’t know what I would be doing,” said Thompson.
Thompson said her family owes a great deal of gratitude to the health department’s Nurse-Family Partnership Program. The services helped her and her son while he was in the womb through his toddler years. Thompson, an educational advocate for Puget Sound Educational Service District, refers families to programs at the health department to help them get the help they need.
“When I went to my family's homes, I would be like, ‘The health department has this, this and this. Use it,’” said Thompson. “These programs are in dire need now than they were prior to COVID.”
Thompson said she also worries about how the proposal to realign operations at the county health level could impact the services provided.
“We need help and there’s programs that can help us. All different realms of people—social, academic differences. It doesn’t matter. I have a full-time job. I was okay and still needed help. So, imagine people who have less than, the less fortunate. They need the help,” said Thompson.
The proposal heads to the full council for further review, with a vote likely on December 15th. Those against the idea will be rallying Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the county-city building.