La Plata County Board of County Commissioners took the next major step in establishing its own public health department Tuesday when it approved two resolutions, one creating a board of health and another naming seven members to that board. Its membership is composed of a range of experts in public health policy, health care, biology and environmental health.
“It’s been a long haul here from back in April of 2022 when the (San Juan Basin) Board of Health made the recommendation to dissolve,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton before the vote. “... This is quite a milestone moment.”
Archuleta and La Plata county commissioners voted in November to dissolve San Juan Basin Public Health, the department that has served the two counties for 74 years. Tensions had risen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted philosophical differences between the constituencies of the two counties with respect to public health services and necessary restrictions.
The new board will serve in an organizational capacity until the dissolution takes effect Dec. 31.
Commissioners interviewed 15 of the 31 applicants they received in search of individuals who brought a broad range of experience in health, policy and governance, among other factors. Although terms will be five years in length going forward, the BoCC staggered the term lengths of the initial appointments in order to establish continuity going forward.
Dr. Cecil Fraley, CEO of Pediatric Partners of the Southwest, will serve a full five-year term.
Douglas McCarthy, president of Issues Research Inc. and interim executive director of the Local First Foundation, a health care policy expert, will serve a four-year term along with Avery Perryman Sheldon, who is a speech pathologist, according to her biography on the Durango Running Club website.
Teresa Wright, a registered nurse who holds a master’s degree in public health, will serve a three-year term.
Michael Murphy, a managing principal at the 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 member of the SJBPH Board of Health, will serve on the board for two years. She is the only member of the board to who will serve concurrently on the SJBPH board before it is dissolved.
Wendy Rice, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, will serve on the board for one year.
Byrd, who has served on the SJBPH board for 12 years, said her work with the soon-to-be dissolved department will provide some familiarity and a sense of continuity as the county stands up its own department.
“Having one boss instead of two bosses will make it easier both for the board and for the people who actually deliver services because there are some differences in opinion about services that each county wanted to have,” she said.
Byrd said she looks forward to further educating the public on what public health is and unleashing the full potential of the department, which she said has not been entirely utilized because of conflict with Archuleta County.
McCarthy said he, too, looks forward to uplifting the role of public health in the community.
“Most of the gains in life expectancy over the past century have come through public health and they’ve been added to by health care, and yet, health care gets the majority of our attention and our money and our spending,” he said. “What I will try to bring is a perspective of how those two sectors – health care and public health – have an opportunity to work together to achieve much greater good and synergistically, which was really highlighted during COVID.”
Both McCarthy and Wright nodded toward a growing trend in the public health sphere when discussing the job ahead of them: increasing skepticism of fact-based science.
“I think we’ve all learned a lot the last few years (about) the whole concept of messaging and listening, really deeply listening and trying to come to common ground and appreciating different viewpoints,” Wright said.
She encouraged La Plata County residents to fill out the community health assessment survey so that the board has ample community input with which to inform other data sources as the members look to developing community health programs.
Wright also highlighted the growing need to incorporate ways to address the climate crisis in public health programs.
“It’ll be just interesting to know that we can be more proactive as opposed to reactive,” she said.
Members will meet on a monthly or biweekly basis over the next year to organize staff, resources and infrastructure so that La Plata County Public Health is prepared to assume responsibility of the county’s public health needs on Jan. 1, 2024.