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Yellowstone County aiming for new standard for public-health authority

Posted at 5:49 PM, Aug 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-25 19:49:16-04

About a year and a half ago, COVID-19 was surging on, and the Montana Legislature passed a bill altering who had the authority to make public health decisions. Now, in Yellowstone Country, a new legislative body is forming with the goal of tackling future public health events.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local public health was heavily scrutinized. Mask mandates and public-health recommendations were debated across the country.

In 26 states, public health’s authority on the statewide level was rolled back, and more decision making was shifted to elected officials. One of those 26 states was Montana.

Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton has been working with people around the county to establish a new system that will fit with Montana's new law.

“The law doesn’t change the responsibilities of the local board of health or the local health officer in any way. We all have the same responsibilities we had. What’s changed is the authority,” said Felton, the CEO of RiverStone Health, the county's public-health agency.

According to the new law, most day-to-day operations will be left to the discretion of public health officers, but larger decisions prompted by other health crises, such as shutdowns, will now be in the hands of elected officials.

With the new law in place, there has been some uncertainty from the public health community.

“Part of the confusion is it’s not entirely clear in the law what is subject to this approval process and what isn’t. The language is a little confusing,” Felton said.

In order to address that, Yellowstone County is now creating a new coalition of both elected and appointed leaders to work together when making rule changes in the future.

Chief Deputy County Attorney Jeana Lervick has worked closely with Felton to put together a plan. She said that the group has two main objectives.

“The two big ones are that this governing body will ultimately sign off on a new public health officer for when John Felton does retire. The other one is in the event of another pandemic,” Lervick said.

Felton has an ideal situation for the new system he’d like to see implemented.

“To me, what makes the most sense, and what I’ve personally advocated for, is for a small subset that has the authority granted by those bodies to act as that local governing authority for those certain decisions,” Felton said.

While the process of forming this body has not been easy, Felton and Lervick have worked to make sure that all of the communities in Yellowstone County are included.

“It’s complicated. It’s important though to the commissioners and to the cities as well that everyone is represented and represented well,” Lervick said.

“The larger players in the operation are the city of Billings and Yellowstone County, and so we are trying to get them on the same page. And then we’ll work more closely with Laurel to make sure we can get all three of them to come to a decision,” Felton said.

Regardless of the new bill or legislative body, Felton says the health department’s mission will remain the same.

“Our goal is really simple; we want to have a healthy and safe community. It’s really no more complex than that,” Felton said.