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Douglas County votes to leave Tri-County Health, form own health board

The county commissioners will establish their own single-county public health agency.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — Douglas County commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to leave the Tri-County Health Department (TCHD) during a special business meeting Tuesday afternoon.

The county now has 90 days to appoint a five-member board of health. Commissioners said during a work session Tuesday morning that they plan to appoint the health board at a meeting on September 14.

Two of the county commissioners, Lora Thomas and George Teal, would sit on the health board and commissioners would appoint three other community members.

They voted last week to formally move forward with a separation from TCHD, which has served the county for 55 years. They will now establish their own single-county public health agency.

"Our decision to start our own health department has a lot of moving pieces to it. And probably the impetus was, the mask order is on and then off, and then it's opt-in and then opt-out. But this has been a long time in coming," Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas told 9NEWS. "What we are hoping to do is there's governance and services that our new board of health will provide the governance, while Tri-County will continue to provide the services. So there'll be no gaps in what we provide to our citizens. That's what we're negotiating on."

RELATED: DougCo moves to formally exit Tri-County Health

During the work session last week, Commissioner George Teal directed staff to draft a resolution withdrawing from TCHD and forming a Douglas County Public Health Agency. That issue was heard during a Special Business Meeting at 4 p.m.

For several months, Douglas County has been exploring options and opportunities related to alternative means for the delivery of public health services for the county. They're working with public health experts, an internal working group, as well as community members appointed to a new Public Health Advisory Committee. 

> Video: How this decision could come with legal costs for Douglas County

Douglas County joined TCHD in 1966 and made a prior commitment to remain part of the agency through Dec. 31, 2022. More than a year ago in July 2020, there were talks about splitting with the department after health orders were put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

RELATED: Counties can no longer opt out of Tri-County Health's school mask mandate

Those issues recently resurfaced when mask mandates were put in place for young students in schools by TCHD in mid-August. TCHD initially had an opt-out provision, but rescinded that order and replaced it with a new order that does not have that opt-out provision. That move came after both Douglas County and Adams County chose to opt out. Arapahoe County had a vote on the issue scheduled.

The ability to opt out was something the two sides had previously agreed to as a condition of Douglas County remaining with the TCHD. 

The suddenness of the departure of Douglas County from TCHD is not sitting well with leaders in Arapahoe County. The Arapahoe County attorney sent a letter to the Douglas County attorney asking that the commissioners delay their vote. 

Arapahoe County leaders said they haven't had time to assess the potential financial or service impact the change might have. They're asking Douglas County leaders to halt the departure plan until all three counties can meet and discuss a "mutually agreeable" exit strategy.

The letter threatens possible legal action if Douglas County proceeds with the vote Tuesday as planned and it's later determined that Arapahoe County suffers "significant adverse impacts."

 At issue is whether Douglas County complied with the one-year advance notice requirement to leave TCHD. While the commissioners sent a letter to the health department in July of 2020 notifying of their intent to leave, they sent another letter in November rescinding their previous letter.

“It is very unfortunate that the actions of our response to a pandemic have triggered this reaction and triggered Douglas County leaving,” said Jennifer Ludwig, deputy director of TCHD.

“To have it happen at the height of our response to COVID 19 was incredibly difficult and has taken away a lot of our attention that could have been focused on the pandemic.”

Ludwig said they were already working with Douglas County planning a slower more smooth transition plan for the county to leave in 2023. 

“Them leaving sooner doesn’t change the process we’re going through," she said. "But it could have early budget implications because if we don’t have the Douglas County funding  next year … somehow we have to make up that difference.”

TCHD's executive director, Dr. John Douglas, has previously pledged to continue to provide health department services to Douglas County until they can provide the services for themselves, something Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon said helped him vote yes on the county's exit.

"Tri-County Health Department cannot yet speak to what services will look like in Douglas County until we reach an agreement with the county," a spokesperson for Tri-County Health said in a statement Tuesday. "However, Tri-County Health Department is committed to continuing to provide services to Douglas County residents until those agreements have been made and the transition to the Douglas County Health Department is completed."

The spokesperson said when Douglas County began talking about leaving the Tri-County Health Department, Adams and Arapahoe counties and TCHD had to consider what impact the separation would have on the rest of the entity. 

"Adams and Arapahoe counties are currently engaged in a process to explore options for the future provision of public health services and programs in their two counties. They and Tri-County Health Department are working together with a consulting firm Otowi Group to gather and analyze related information and engage in strategic planning," the spokesperson said. 

Douglas County has already paid Tri-County Health for services through the end of 2021. The commissioners' vote Tuesday would allow the county to govern its public health response, though services like restaurant inspections would still be provided through TCHD.

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