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Pagosa Springs physicians request reconsideration of health department dissolution

La Plata County commissioners plan to stay the course
Commissioners say it is too late to reverse the decision to dissolve San Juan Basin Public Health. (Durango Herald file)

Just nine months remain until the dissolution of San Juan Basin Public Health goes into effect. By the time the new year arrives on Jan. 1, both La Plata and Archuleta counties must have their own departments in place to take over state-mandated public health duties. As the two counties step into new territory and begin the process, some Archuleta County residents are appealing to county commissioners to reconsider the dissolution.

County commissioners in both counties received letters dated March 16 from physicians at the Pagosa Springs Medical Center urging the boards to reverse the dissolution.

On Tuesday, all three La Plata County commissioners voiced support for the dissolution and unanimously voted to approve a response to the doctors outlining their position.

“The dissolution of the public health district will negatively impact services in both communities,” read the letter submitted by doctors John Wisneski and Julie Buchner. “We are neighbors and friends with more in common than we have differences.”

The dissolution of SJBPH was the product of some disharmony between the two counties over the regulatory role of public health. Those differences reared their head during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, setting in motion a dissolution process that began when the SJBPH board recommended dissolution and became all but final when the counties passed a joint resolution to take that step.

With three quarters of a year before the dissolution actually occurs, the Pagosa Springs physicians said it was not too late to reverse course.

But both counties have already launched efforts to ensure the transition occurs smoothly.

Archuleta County has established a transitional board of to oversee its process and has published a timeline of next steps.

La Plata County has hired consultants at the Otowi Group to assist the county in the process. The La Plata County Board of Health, which was assembled in late January, heard a presentation from consultants about the dissolution process earlier this month.

The Otowi Group was also involved in the far larger breakup of the Tri-County public health department last year.

In a back-and-forth between County Manager Chuck Stevens, Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton highlighted the extensive work and expense La Plata County staff members have already put into the process.

In comments before voting on a motion to approve a response to the physicians, Porter-Norton highlighted that she appreciated the engagement and display of care.

Still, she concluded: “My thinking on the dissolution has not changed at all.”

“We firmly believe that a single county health district is the most effective means of balancing competing values and interests and upholding our oath to serve primarily the needs of La Plata County’s citizens,” the BoCC’s letter read. “While change can be challenging, we are happy to report that thanks to the collaborative efforts of both counties and the hard work of our staff and the newly appointed board of health, we are on track toward delivering public health programs and services by Jan. 1, 2024.”

The SJBPH Board of Health will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Friday to “Review and Discuss the Status and Recommendations for the Ongoing Operations and Obligations of SJBPH.”

It is unclear whether the meeting is directly tied to the calls for reunification.


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