The pandemic has brought Idaho’s public health districts into the spotlight. Many of their decisions — from mask mandates to recommendations for online schooling — have been heavily scrutinized, attracting large crowds to meetings and sometimes protests, too.
Now the seven local health districts are anticipating more attention during the 2021 legislative session. Collectively, they’ve hired a lobbyist, Mike Kane, a Boise lawyer who has represented individual districts.
“We’re kind of concerned about what the legislature might do to us,” said Elt Hasbrook, the Valley County trustee on the Central District Health board, during a board meeting last week.
Kane will be paid $5,000 per month for three months, using funds that went unspent when an annual health board conference was cancelled due to the pandemic.
He’s already begun meeting with lawmakers about what bills might be on the horizon.
“The general discussion I’ve had with legislators so far,” he said in an update on Friday to the executive council of the Idaho Association of District Boards of Health, “seems to coalesce around more control by the counties over the health districts.”
Possible bills, which Kane said, for now, are “just talk,” include limiting health district trustees to county commissioners. Now county commissioners can appoint community members to the board and some have chosen people with medical backgrounds. Another would limit health district decision-making to advisory power only, meaning decisions they make would need to be ratified by the county commissioners in the district.
The health districts could also help introduce their own bills. One legislator suggested the possibility that they could have a broader disciplinary toolbox than just handing out misdemeanors, which has been a sticking point when trustees have considered orders like mask mandates. They could advocate for adjusting the law to allow for warnings and minor infractions.
Some health leaders, like Dr. David Pate, who sits on Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus task force, have also made clear the need for changes to the public health system. Pate has noted that since the health districts were created in 1970, Idaho has seen major population growth in the Treasure Valley, where there are two health districts. During the pandemic, this led to uneven health measures in an interconnected region.
He’s also pointed out that a few members on Idaho’s health district boards have spread misinformation during the pandemic.
In the meantime, Kane is working to educate lawmakers on how the health districts work.
“Most people do not understand what it is these districts do — where they came from, how they came into being, how they’re funded, what the governing structure is,” he said.
He explains to lawmakers that the health districts function separately from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and they do many things beside addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, like hosting tuberculosis clinics, conducting food inspections in restaurants and informing the public about toxic algal blooms in waterways.
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