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Pierce County residents: Thank you for your support

We appreciate your advocacy for an independent public health department

The widespread outpouring of support for our agency in the last week is humbling. Board of Health members, business and political leaders and residents from all corners of our county recognize the good work of the dedicated people at Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

It’s more important than ever that all of us unite behind public health.

This proposed ordinance Pierce County Council will vote on Dec. 15 pretends it is about governance and efficiency and ignores the demonstrated value of a diverse, independent Board of Health and the department’s long record of working with county agencies and other partners.

I want to set the record straight on some of the inaccuracies reported about the current Health Department structure and services.

Unlike what is proposed, the current Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health combines accountability to a wide range of voters and health care expertise. Seven of the eight members are elected public officials representing the Pierce County and City of Tacoma councils and the Pierce County Cities and Towns Association, ensuring the department serves residents who live in cities and towns as well as unincorporated Pierce County. The eighth member, Dr. William Hirota, represents the Pierce County Medical Society and is a past president of the Washington State Medical Association. Dr. Hirota’s medical expertise presents a crucial viewpoint in many Board of Health discussions.

While much of the focus has been on City of Tacoma’s annual contribution of $1.17 million, other funding losses would likely follow if we were to lose our standing as an independent public health department. We may become less attractive for grants for innovative efforts that Department of Health, Ecology, CDC, FDA the Washington State Legislature and private funders have supported from water quality and food safety improvements to potentially preventable hospitalizations. We don’t know how funding losses could affect the jobs of our dedicated employees. 

As an independent and nimble public health department, we have led in public health improvements such as limiting tobacco advertising targeted to youth, ban on Smoking in Public Places, safe medicine return, safe needle exchange, watershed and shellfish protection, and policy leadership such as Health in All Policies, and the Board of Health’s recent resolution to be an anti-racist organization. The state and others nationally have followed our lead on many of these population health improvements. We have been able to lead on these and other population health advancements in large part because of our independent role. This ability to innovate—and the funding opportunities that come with it—could be in jeopardy if we became a county health department. Many funders look to support experienced, data-driven health departments like ours. 

As a small government agency, we remain focused on efficient response, rapid cycle improvement and innovation. The Health Department constantly looks for ways to improve and streamline services to Pierce County residents.

Our work with Pierce County Planning & Public Works is just one example of the way we currently work together so our shared customers can do their business more easily and conveniently. We have 5 health department staff members who work out of the County Planning & Public Works development center to support efficient processing of residential septic and water permits.

Our Environmental Health team is working on even more streamlined review processes for residential permitting to launch in 2021. Those improvements will include inspecting individual well site applications independently of onsite soils review so applicants can get their well drilled before septic approval and get final water approval for onsite septic approval.

Before COVID-19 closed government buildings for services to the public, we also had launched an effort with Pierce County to offer passport services here at the Health Department and birth and death records at Pierce County Auditor’s Office.

Our current Health Department structure and governance allows us to streamline services, focus on continuous quality improvement and partner with other governmental agencies when it improves services to residents.

COVID-19 is the biggest health challenge we have faced in a century. I’m proud of our response to it and to our continued commitment to all aspects of public health. Distracting our community with a needless political battle right now is a disservice to the people we all serve.