Robust Support System and Millions in Housing for Veterans

(Left to Right) LA County Veterans’ Advisory Commissioner and Army Veteran Dennis Tucker, Marine Veteran and Formerly Homeless Advocate Wendell Blassingame, LA County Community Development Commission Executive Director Monique King-Viehland, Soldiers Project Executive Director and Marine Veteran Michael McDowell, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center Executive Director and Marine Veteran Tess Banko, Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative Co-Chair and Vietnam War Veteran Tony Hicks, and LA County Department of Mental Health Director Jonathan Sherin. All photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger to create a countywide support network that will enable veterans to help fellow veterans, and allocate $20 million to provide housing for veterans experiencing mental health issues and housing challenges in Los Angeles County.

“It is fitting that we are taking action on the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network on the day after Memorial Day,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “We can never repay our brave men and women for their service to our country, but the least we can do is make sure they have the support they need to lead lives of dignity and purpose.”

LA County Community Development Commission Executive Director Monique King-Viehland testifies before the Board of Supervisors.

“This action establishes a network which enables our veterans to help fellow veterans access vital resources, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and housing,” Supervisor Barger said. “Meaningful peer-to-peer interaction and engagement, paired with supportive services and housing tailored for veterans’ needs, will result in improved outcomes for those who have served.”

The motion calls for creating the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network by expanding the number of veteran peers employed by the County, as well as nonprofit organizations contracted by the County to serve veterans. It also incorporates $5 million to immediately facilitate access to existing housing stock through the Countywide Veteran Peer Access Network, and an additional $15 million to create new affordable and permanent supportive housing units for veterans experiencing homelessness.

 Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative Co-Chair and Vietnam War Veteran Tony Hicks and UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center Executive Director and Marine Veteran Tess Banko testify before the Board of Supervisors.

Tess Banko, a Marine Corps veteran whose husband tragically committed suicide while on active duty, testified, “This motion will not only serve to tighten the fabric of community in ways that are vital for veterans like me and their families, aiding in prevention and overall health, but it will also create a portal for direct access to coordinated services that can help those in need quickly and easily access assistance when it is most needed.”

“(The motion) not only touches my heart, but it touches every homeless veteran in Los Angeles County,” said Wendell Blassingame, a former Marine Corps veteran who used to be homeless but is now residing in a supportive housing unit provided by the County.

Last year’s Homeless Count found almost 5,000 homeless veterans countywide on any given night.

Protecting the Affordable Care Act

As the California Legislature considers state healthcare reform in response to the Trump Administration’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion advocating for the following provisions.

  • A “public insurance option” for all state residents, which would force private insurance companies to compete with a public insurance plan, ensuring that they keep their standards high;
  • A mandate for all California residents to purchase health insurance, and for all employers with 50 or more employees to offer employee health coverage; and
  • A “Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund” to address the root causes of preventable conditions.

The Board bifurcated the motion and voted 4-1 to also endorse exploring an “all-payer” payment system that would set prices for healthcare providers and plans in California. Such a system, which has worked well in Maryland, could limit price increases and substantially reduce administrative burdens for all healthcare stakeholders.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas stands with doctors and nurses to advocate for protecting the Affordable Care Act.

“I am committed to doing everything within my power to maintain the hard-fought gains we’ve made under the ACA in LA County, regardless of the disingenuous attempts to undermine it,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion. “We must act, and act decisively, to protect our residents.”

“After all their efforts to repeal the ACA failed, President Trump and Congress continue to work to weaken the ACA like little ducks trying to peck it to death,” the motion’s coauthor, Board Chair Sheila Kuehl, added. “With the ACA, LA County’s uninsured rate dropped from 21 percent to 11 percent with over 1.3 million residents receiving health insurance coverage, and we are adamantly unwilling to see our progress reversed.”

The ACA also enabled 380,000 individuals to receive subsidized coverage through the state-based insurance exchange, Covered California. LA Care Health Plan offers a public insurance option for all County residents through Covered California. Its CEO, John Baackes, said, “There is no question that an L.A. Care-style public option is a viable solution to the healthcare chaos that has the nation in its grip,” Baackes said. “It would not be a matter of starting over from scratch, but rather an expansion of something that is working.”

During a recent press conference at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, dozens of medical practitioners and health industry leaders also supported protecting the gains made through the ACA. “The expansion of insurance coverage under the ACA was a game-changer for our patients and our hospital,” noted Harbor-UCLA Medical Center chief medical officer, Anish Mahajan.

L-R: California Physicians Alliance’s Steve Tarzynski, Health Access CA’s Joan Pirkle Smith, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center’s Anish Mahajan, Public Health’s Barbara Ferrer, Community Health Councils’ Sonya Vasquez, SEIU Local 721’s Patrick Del Conte.

California Physicians Alliance President Dr. Stephen Tarzynski said the motion calls for “key steps toward a unified publicly financed single payer system that will cover everyone in our state.” County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer added, “Access to quality public health services, including community disease prevention and wellness efforts, is essential to achieve healthy people in healthy communities.”

Sonya Vasquez, president of Community Health Councils, a community-based health education and policy nonprofit, said, “While we must continue to fight against federal attacks that threaten our healthcare system, we must also continue to move forward and create our own system for California that values the most vulnerable, puts care over profits, and understands the social determinants of health.”

“While the President and Congress continue to seek to sabotage our health system and take us backward, LA leaders are appropriately looking for ways to not just protect our progress, but to go forward with needed improvements,” added Joan Pirkle Smith, president of Health Access California, the statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition.

L-R: LA Care’s John Baackes, Health Access CA’s Amy Wiwuga, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Board Chair Sheila Kuehl, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center’s Anish Mahajan, and SEIU Local 721’s Patrick Del Conte attended the Board of Supervisors meeting to testify in support of the motion.

LA County Distributes 20,000 Gallons of Water in Willowbrook and Compton

Residents line up to get bottled water at Sagrado Corazon Church in Compton.

At the direction of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles County distributed approximately 20,000 gallons of bottled water to residents of Willowbrook and Compton amid continued concerns about brown water running through their taps.

The County Fire and Public Health Departments, in collaboration with other agencies and community-based organizations, stepped up to help because the independently operated Sativa Water District had limited capacity to respond to customers worried about the quality of their drinking water.

Sativa recently flushed its pipes after an extended period without proper maintenance, and the lingering sediment caused intermittent discoloration and cloudiness in the water supply. While testing found that the water does not pose a health risk and meets the standards of the state Water Resources Board, many of Sativa’s 6,800 customers reported continuing discoloration and lack of access to clear drinking water.

Though it is the state that holds the authority to regulate Sativa’s water quality, the County took the initiative to distributed bottled water to Willowbrook and Compton residents at several locations on April 27-29. The County also provided additional testing and educational outreach.

“I want to applaud County departments for ensuring that residents have access to bottled water, especially when the water coming out of their taps is discolored or cloudy,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “The County is also urging state regulators to monitor Sativa and ensure that its customers’ drinking water is clean, clear and safe.”

Only a few days before, the Board of Supervisors approved his urgency motion activate a strike team to investigate Sativa’s water quality and take immediate steps to prevent any serious risks to public health.

The motion also called on County agencies to determine whether appropriate management and governance of the water district is in place to address Sativa’s existing infrastructure issues and ensure that customers have ongoing access to clean and safe water. This could include working with the Local Agency Formation Commission and the State Water Resources Control Board to explore options to dissolve Sativa and identify a more sustainable water purveyor for the area.

“No one should have to drink discolored water,” said County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.  “We will work with the State Water Resources Control Board to ensure the water remains safe to drink, and to ensure that local water companies offer bottled water to residents experiencing discolored water.”

To report continued water discoloration, Sativa customers can call:

State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Drinking Water
(818) 551-2004

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health
(888) 700-9995

LA County Fire and Public Health Department staff unload pallets of drinking water for distribution.

Assessing the Impact of Nuisance Tobacco Shops

L-R: John Yi with the American Lung Association, Robert Baird with the Prevention Institute; and Alberto Retana of Community Coalition, testify before the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Henry Salazar/Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to take a closer look at tobacco shops in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, and to assess their impact on the health and safety of the communities around them.

The motion, authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, also called for examining potential regulations to address nuisance tobacco shops, as well as education and outreach strategies to curb tobacco use.

“Currently, smoke shops in LA County are allowed by-right in commercial zones and do not need a special business licenses,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “There is no way to track or monitor them. We do not know how many there are, let alone how they operate. Not all of them may be problematic, and the crimes and concerns that affect certain communities may not touch others. Still, I would like to hear about the best practices and regulatory options we have, including possible changes to tobacco retailer licensing and land use regulations.”

A 2017 study by the University of California Riverside School of Medicine suggested tobacco shops “may constitute nuisance properties associated with dangerous neighborhood conditions for crime and violence.” Meanwhile, the nonprofit Community Coalition’s 2017 South LA People’s Poll found 64 percent of adults and 44 percent of youth are “very concerned” with criminal activity at and surrounding smoke shops.

While California’s smoke-free laws prohibit smoking in most businesses, there are exemptions for businesses whose “main purpose” is the sale of tobacco products, as well as for private smokers’ lounges, defined as enclosed areas in or attached to a tobacco shop.

Andrew Subica, one of the authors of the UC Riverside study that showed a link between tobacco shops and dangerous neighborhood conditions. Photo by Henry Salazar/Board of Supervisors.

“Our research states that tobacco shops are a potentially serious but unaddressed public health danger,” Prof. Andrew Subica, one of the primary authors of the UC Riverside study, told the Board. “We strongly support this motion to allocate public resources to identify and assess the scope of the tobacco shop problem.”

“Without reliable enforcement, the overconcentration of alcohol retail outlets in communities of color a generation ago can easily repeat itself with tobacco shops retailing cannabis,” warned Robert Baird, an urban planner at the nonprofit Prevention Institute. “In reality, this process appears to be well underway and with similar impacts for addiction, public safety and disinvestment.”

“For decades, Big Tobacco has focused on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to market their deadly products,” added John Yi, advocacy director for the American Lung Association in California. “With the astronomical rise of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products, these community stores have become ground zero for the industries’ tactics towards addicting future generations of smokers.”

Community Coalition President and CEO Alberto Retana said, “This motion is a key step… to not only create an environment that respects the dignity and quality of life in South LA, but to ensure that the goods and services we deliver are those that speak to our highest aspirations.”

The Board directed the Departments of Public Health, Regional Planning, County Counsel, Sheriff, Treasurer and Tax Collector, and key community stakeholders, to report back on nuisance tobacco shops within 120 days.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas appointed to national leadership position

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has been appointed chairman of the Nominating Committee of the National Association of Counties (NACo), which unites officials from the United States’ 3,069 county governments to advocate with a collective voice on national policy.

NACo President Roy Charles Brooks with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the most recent NACo Conference and Exposition, held in Columbus, Ohio, on July 2017.

At NACo’s Annual Conference in Nashville/Davidson County, Tenn., on July 13-16, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas will play an instrumental role in NACo’s governance process. The Nominating Committee is tasked with reviewing the credentials of candidates to NACo’s Board of Directors and the position of Second Vice President, who typically goes on to serve as President.

“I am honored to represent Los Angeles County in this capacity at the national level,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “I look forward to chairing the committee that is essential in selecting NACo’s leaders, who work tirelessly to maintain healthy, vibrant and safe counties across the United States.”

“County governments are on the frontlines of delivering vital services, from healthcare to law enforcement to basic infrastructure and more,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “NACo gives us an opportunity to stand together around issues of national importance, and work together to better serve our constituents.”

Last spring, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas partnered with NACo to host a forum in Washington, D.C. on the importance of counties collaborating to eradicate homelessness nationwide.

“Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has long demonstrated sound judgment, integrity and fairness – all key virtues for this chairmanship and ensuring the vitality of NACo’s leadership for years to come,” said NACo President Roy Charles Brooks, who announced the appointment. “As the leader of the largest county in America, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas brings exceptional experience in governing and achieving results. We are pleased that he has accepted this mission-critical role and look forward to continuing to work with him in support of counties nationwide.”

Founded in 1935, NACo brings together county officials nationwide to exchange ideas and build new leadership skills, pursue transformational county solutions, enrich the public’s understanding of county government and exercise exemplary leadership in public service.