Months before a July deadline to switch up the local health board membership, the Spokane County Board of Commissioners reduced the size of the local health board and appointed three new members. The new members include naturopathic doctor Alycia Policani; Charlie Durañona, the outreach coordinator for Mann-Grandstaff's homeless veterans program; and Chris Patterson, president of BreakThrough Inc. foster homes and the community solutions adviser at Washington Trust Bank. A fourth new member representing the Native American community will be appointed by the American Indian Health Commission.
In Spokane County, the health board oversees the Spokane Regional Health District. The district's public health work includes monitoring and reducing the spread of communicable diseases, overseeing sewer/septic applications, promoting water and air quality, inspecting restaurants, promoting health education, and more.
The move to reduce the number of elected officials on the health board and appoint members from other sectors of the community came after a 2021 change to state law. Washington lawmakers, heeding criticism that health boards consisted almost entirely of politicians, eliminated elected official majorities on those boards and required more community positions.
The new categories include someone who represents public health/health care providers (Policani), someone who has used public health services (Patterson), a community stakeholder (Durañona), and someone representing tribes.
Rather than add multiple people in each new category to keep elected officials from having the majority, Spokane's county commissioners voted in late 2021 to restructure the health board, leaving only themselves (three commissioners) and one city representative (currently Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman) on the health board.
Here, two of the three new health board members share more about themselves.
A LIFE IN HEALTH CAREPatterson grew up in foster care in Elk, Washington. Now, he oversees the operation of residential homes for foster youth who struggle with behavioral health and intellectual and developmental disabilities. He says health and human services have been central in his life.
"I've either lived in it or worked in it," Patterson tells the Inlander.
Patterson went into the Job Corps early in life and was able to have a relationship with his late foster parents for 30 years. In addition to later starting BreakThrough's staffed residential homes, Patterson was appointed under the Trump administration to oversee Region 9 of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a role he held from 2019 until the administration changed in January 2021.
Now, Patterson is working with Washington Trust Bank to help oversee their "Hello for Good" initiative, which will put private businesses' money toward evidence-based programs throughout the Inland Northwest.
"I firmly believe that homelessness and mental health and addiction is not getting the attention it needs," Patterson says. "We do need to have better policies to address the issues."
Patterson says the community needs accountability, structure, leverage and public support to truly address those issues.
In his time at HUD, Patterson says he visited Skid Row in Los Angeles. In particular, he recalls seeing a 4-year-old living in a tent among the thousands of others without homes.
"That's a crisis. That's a disaster, and it's disgusting," Patterson says. "No elected person has the right to say they did everything they could, in that city, in that state, in the federal government. To me, it was appalling that we've gotten to the point we treat humanity this way."
It won't be possible to "fix" every person and get them into mental health treatment, drug treatment or housing, he says, but communities need to help those who are ready. That doesn't mean forgetting those who may be more difficult to help, Patterson says, but prioritizing the issue for those who are ready.
When asked whether it appears relationships between the health board and the health district staff need mending, or whether he wanted to respond to any criticism of the new health board's makeup, Patterson said he first just needs to listen and learn more.
"I need to see where things are shifting, what their agenda is, what their focus is, whether it's short-term or long-term, whether it's politically based," Patterson says.
He doesn't just go along with the status quo — "I'm not a 'yes man,'" he says — and his focus is on what's best for the community.
With public health, Patterson says he hopes to help people recognize inherent health risks and make healthy decisions. While he agrees with explaining the consequences of actions, he does not agree with mandating specific health measures, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
"My fear of the forced vaccine mandate is you took away a person's right, where we lose the ability to do what's right and give them a choice," Patterson says, confirming to the Inlander that he did get the COVID-19 vaccine. "If me being vaccinated shows I can be a leader in a different way, so be it. But I am not going to get in front of somebody and point my finger like we have seen across the country, chastising and demonizing people because they're not wearing a mask and they're not vaccinated. That does nothing."
'EVERYTHING IS TEAMWORK'Durañona is a first-generation American whose family moved to the U.S. from Cuba. He's also a disabled veteran who now works to find housing for homeless veterans throughout the Inland Northwest. Durañona describes himself as a professional friend maker.
His wife is also a mental health counselor, so Durañona says much of his work and home life is focused on helping those who struggle to access services and care they need.
He applied to be on the board in part because he says he felt the Hispanic voice in this community isn't very loud (although he acknowledges that many groups are working to improve that), and he wanted to bring his experiences to the table.
Similar to Patterson, when asked about the current relationship between the health board and health district staff, Durañona said he'll assess the situation when he starts attending meetings. But, he adds, communication is key in any relationship.
"I come from the military, where everything is teamwork," Durañona says. "I think everybody should come to the table and work things out."
Much of the criticism of the new appointees has centered on Policani being selected for the health care representative over medical doctors who applied. But despite claims that no one on the board has "medical" experience, Durañona points out that even his past fits that definition.
Durañona served as a Navy corpsman working in hospital/medical care. He has also worked as a medical assistant and an emergency room tech.
"Just because you didn't spend those years in school doesn't mean you don't have medical experience," he says.
Durañona says he and his family got vaccinated for COVID, but similar to Patterson, he does not think mandates are an effective public health strategy. He says people resist being told what to do, and he thinks education may better convince people to make the best choices for their health and the community.
"If it's a federal law or a state law, I, myself, am going to follow it. I'm not going to make other people follow it," Durañona says. "Education is key. To continue to educate on the science is pretty much all that we can do at this moment. Once we start mandating, that's when I believe people become defiant."
Durañona emphasizes that his biggest passion is mental health and suicide prevention.
"I believe mental health and addiction has gotten worse throughout the pandemic," he says. "COVID is a huge part of public health, but mental health is also a big issue. We need to start concentrating on that and suicide prevention. That's a big one of mine, especially being a veteran and knowing a lot of guys who've taken their lives."
"If it's a federal law or a state law, I, myself, am going to follow it. I'm not going to make other people follow it."
ADDRESSING CRITICISMAs a naturopath for 20-plus years, Policani has worked in alternative medicine focused on preventive care (rather than reactionary care), and she is the president of Evergreen Naturopathic. Policani didn't respond to multiple Inlander interview requests to share her views with the community.
On her application, Policani also listed experience working in acupuncture and addiction treatment serving homeless adults from 1997 to 2000. Her social media is largely private, but some of her public posts from a decade ago include articles critical of genetically modified organisms and the measles vaccine. In her interview with the commissioners, Policani said she wants to educate the larger community about preventive health measures.
Policani's selection over other health care applicants such as Monica Blykowski-May — the former chief medical director of CHAS Health, who has been a medical doctor in Spokane for 25 years and is now deputy chief of staff at Mann-Grandstaff — was met with public criticism.
While Freeman and County Commissioner Mary Kuney had Blykowski-May atop their lists, the two voted with commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French to appoint Policani after finishing interviews with several candidates in early February.
French says, in part, he wanted a naturopath's viewpoint on the board because the health district already has the expertise of medical doctors and registered nurses within its programs. Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez also stays in touch with medical leaders throughout Spokane.
Someone close to French has also struggled with a difficult to diagnose and treat medical condition. After they went everywhere from the University of Washington to the Mayo Clinic, French says, medical doctors suggested reaching out to a naturopath.
"I thought, 'Well geez, if doctors at some of the best medical institutions in the world reach out to them, why not bring that voice to the table?'" French tells the Inlander.
French points out that the health board is not a medical board, but oversees the operations of the health district. He notes that even the boards for Spokane's hospitals have few medical doctors, and oddly enough, the first medical doctor to be appointed to Spokane's health board since at least the 1970s was Dr. Bob Lutz in 2011. French appointed him.
French says the medical community that now questions the lack of a medical doctor on the health board did not seem so concerned about a lack of representation before the pandemic.
"If that's so critical, where have they been for the last half century?" French wonders. "Frankly, one doctor on a board of eight is not going to change outcomes. It's going to be the health officer who changes outcomes as it relates to medical issues." ♦