A bill to limit the power of state's two largest health departments advanced out of a House committee Tuesday.
The bill’s author, Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, told the judiciary committee HB 2504 increases transparency and gets the Tulsa and Oklahoma City County Health Departments on the same page as the state’s 68 other county health departments currently funded and overseen by the state.
The difference between the two largest departments and rest of the state’s county health departments is the Tulsa and Oklahoma City County Health Departments were established following a state constitution amendment in 1950 to work independent of the state department of health and are funded in part by their own ad valorem taxes.
The bill would take away a city appointment to each of the boards, replacing them with a state health commissioner appointee. It would require the local director perform duties "in consultation" with the state health commissioner and would ban local rules from being "more stringent" than state guidelines. It also allows the state health commissioner to force a vote on removing the local director.
Kannady told the committee he observed issues with the departments while serving in the Oklahoma National Guard to combat COVID-19.
“During that time, I ran into a lot of problems with the chain of command structure with the two city county health departments, doing things that were completely different and I would say are contrary and negative to the greater mission,” he said.
“I don’t think there are criticisms about fiscal management or resources. I don’t think there are issues with effectiveness of service delivery. We’ll put our record up against anybody’s,” OCCHD Chairman Dr. Gary Roskob said, noting Oklahoma City County has distributed approximately 22% of the state’s total vaccines.
“If there are certain areas, the best approach is to sit down and talk and fix those, you don’t need to reorganize the entire public health governmental structure to address issues, but we have not heard any of those issues,” he said.
Roskob released the following statement Tuesday:
“There were inaccurate statements made during today's committee hearing. The description of OCCHD’s financials was inaccurate. OCCHD is not dependent upon funding from the state to execute our mission or provide services to the people of Oklahoma City and County.
OCCHD's funding comes from the following sources:
• County ad valorem dollars (over 2/3 of the agency's budget)
• Contracts and reimbursement grants for services for specific local programming
• Revenue from fee for services
OCCHD’s financials are public record and independently audited yearly by an independent auditor. To date, we have not received a request to view our financial records.
This bill is attempting to address a problem that does not exist. HB 2504 is an attempt to place local public health under the administrative control of the Oklahoma State Department of Health through personnel management, board appointments, preemption and budgetary management.
This bill circumvents the purpose of the statute that created metro health departments, is unnecessary and without merit.”
“On behalf of the Board of Health, I am confident our legislators will see this proposed legislation for what it is: a blatant attempt to overstep and centralize power, placing control in the hands of political appointees with allegiances that will potentially undermine the health and safety of Tulsa County residents,” Tulsa City County Health Board Chair Dr. Ann Paul wrote in a statement.
“I think a lot of us are concerned this is in response to things that Dr. Dart in Tulsa may have said that are unpopular,” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin told Kannady during the committee meeting.
“You know that's not how I work but it's a fair question,” Kannady responded. “I think if you look at the committee substitute it’s a good balance.”
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt told News 9 he reached out to the bill’s author after reading the legislation. He said the original bill before being amended would have eliminated the city county health department’s independence.
"We have never felt that any changes are necessary, but that's not always in our control,” Holt said. “I've worked with the legislative authors of HB 2504 to significantly amend their original proposal so that Oklahoma City's health department retains its operational independence."
Holt said the bill’s requirement to work in “consultation” with the state health commissioner simply means they will discuss things. “I assume they do that now,” Holt said.
The bill passed 7-2 and is now eligible to be heard before the full House.