Selected people come from a variety of backgrounds
La Plata County Commissioners have appointed seven people to the board of health to run the new La Plata County Public Health Department. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald File)
On Tuesday, the La Plata County Board of Commissioners took an important step toward establishing its own public health department, approving two resolutions, one to create a board of health and the other to appoint seven members to the board. Its membership consists of a range of experts in public health policy, healthcare, biology and environmental health.
“It’s been a long process since the (San Juan Basin) Board of Health recommended dissolution in April 2022,” Commissioner Martha Porter-Norton said before the vote. “…this is a landmark moment.”
Archuleta and La Plata county commissioners voted in November to disband San Juan Basin Public Health, which served the two counties for 74 years. Tensions have risen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting differences in philosophies between the two county districts regarding public health services and necessary restrictions.
The new board will serve in an organizational capacity until the dissolution takes effect on December 31.
Commissioners interviewed 15 of the 31 applicants they received, looking for people with broad experience in health, policy and governance, among other areas. Although future terms are five years, the Bank of Canada staggered the terms of the initial appointments to ensure continuity going forward.
Dr. Cecil Fraley, CEO of Pediatric Partners of the Southwest, will serve for a five-year term.
Healthcare policy expert Douglas McCarthy, president of Issues Research Inc. and interim executive director of the Local First Foundation, will join speech-language pathologist Avery Perryman Sheldon for four years , according to her at the Durango Running Club website.
Teresa Wright, an RN with a master’s degree in public health, serves a three-year term.
Michael Murphy, managing principal of consulting firm Durango Health Partners and former interim CEO of Centura Mercy Regional Medical Center, will serve a two-year term; Shere Byrd, a professor of biology at Fort Lewis College and a member of the SJBPH Health Committee, will serve on the committee for two years. She was the only member of the board who served concurrently prior to the dissolution of the SJBPH board.
Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Wendy Rice will serve on the Board for one year.
Byrd, who served on the SJBPH board for 12 years, said her work with the defunct department will provide some familiarity and a sense of continuity as the county establishes its own department.
“Having one boss instead of two will make it easier for both the board and the people who actually provide the service, because there is some disagreement about what services each county wants to have,” she said.
Byrd said she looks forward to further educating the public about what public health is and unlocking the full potential of the department, which she said has been underutilized due to the conflict with Archuleta County.
McCarthy said he also looks forward to elevating the role of public health in the community.
“Over the past century, most of the increase in life expectancy has come from public health, and health care has increased life expectancy, yet health care gets most of our attention, our money and our spending,” he said. “What I’m going to try to bring is a perspective on how these two sectors — healthcare and public health — have the opportunity to work together for the greater good and synergy, which has been really highlighted during COVID.”
In discussing the work ahead of them, both McCarthy and Wright echoed a growing trend in public health: growing skepticism of fact-based science.
“I think we’ve all learned a lot (about) the whole concept of messaging and listening over the last few years, really listening deeply and trying to find common ground and appreciate different perspectives,” Wright said.
She encouraged La Plata County residents to fill out the Community Health Assessment Survey so that the board has sufficient community input to inform other data sources as members seek to develop community health plans.
Wright also highlighted the growing need to incorporate solutions to the climate crisis into public health plans.
“It would be interesting to know that we can be more proactive rather than reactive,” she said.
Members will meet monthly or biweekly over the next year to organize staff, resources and infrastructure so that La Plata County Public Health is ready to take on the county’s public health needs on January 1, 2024.