El Paso County commissioners unanimously approved a letter to state lawmakers this week that opposes a bill expected to come before the Legislature to ban commissioners from serving on a health district board.
The letter came on the day Colorado’s 73rd General Assembly returned to the state Capitol after a five-week hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, plans to introduce the bill that would ban county commissioners from serving concurrently on or as a district board of health. If the bill is passed, county commissioners would appoint resident volunteers to the local boards of health and would have the authority to remove them if there is a documented reason for doing so.
Kipp said setting up independent boards of public health “would lead to better public health decisions and remove politics from the equation,” the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported.
County officials statewide have opposed the proposal, arguing smaller counties will have a more difficult time finding people who are qualified and willing to serve on a public health board, Legislative Policy Advisor Brandon Wilson told commissioners last week.
El Paso County commissioners called the bill a “solution in search of a problem” and said it was an attempt by the state to take away local control of public health departments.
“It’s important to recognize that public health has a lot of components and we need to be looking at the diversity of thought that is required on those boards to really look out for the best interest of our citizens,” Commissioner Carrie Geitner said. On Tuesday, commissioners unanimously ratified a letter of opposition to Kipp’s proposal, calling it “shortsighted and misguided.”
“County commissioner involvement in the public health discussion is a critical component of effective governance, as it provides a direct feedback loop between public health and county leaders,” the letter states. “This integration creates efficiency and helps to elevate the financial and workforce needs to county public health departments. El Paso County Public Health is funded, in part, by El Paso County, so having commissioner participation becomes that much more important; especially when the county budget is being developed each year.”
El Paso County’s nine-member Board of Public Health includes two medical doctors and has representation from UCHealth Memorial; the Colorado Springs Osteopathic Foundation; two county commissioners; one city council member each from Colorado Springs and Fountain; a former command surgeon to North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command; a board-certified pathologist in anatomical, clinical and forensic pathology; and a registered nurse.
“The diversity of our board allows for the balancing of a broad spectrum of community impacts,” the letter states. “… The recent COVID-19 pandemic has not only devastated the health of our citizens but has also severely impacted our local economy and county commissioner involvement is key to bridging the divides between citizens and elected officials in helping to facilitate solutions that are best for local communities.”
El Paso County Board of Health president Dr. James Terbush said the proposed bill was “a significant overreach of the state” into the agency’s workings and said county commissioners who are also Board of Health members bring updated information about what issues are being discussed and considered in the county.
Having commissioners on the Board of Health also “adds responsibility on us to keep the Board of County Commissioners informed,” he said. “During the pandemic, it became more important than it ever was that we remain in contact with the Board of County Commissioners.”
Terbush and county Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said politics has not been an issue among the county Board of Health, even during a pandemic that has at times been politicized.
“I’m confident that our decisions on the Board of Health have been data-driven and science based,” Terbush said.
“We have a highly engaged board and it’s beneficial to have this structure here,” Wheelan said. “I’ve had numerous meetings with county commissioners and they have always been encouraging and supportive. We’ve had some healthy dialogue and that relates to good decisions.”
After county commissioners statewide unanimously opposed the bill during a meeting with Kipp several weeks ago, she revised the bill to allow for one county commissioner to serve on local boards of health, Wilson told El Paso County commissioners. But after the change failed to garner additional support from local leaders, Kipp removed it.
Wilson said bipartisan opposition to the proposed bill “could move the needle” toward revising it.