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OSDH: Much work to be done if agency wants to leave ‘trailing edge of public health’

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The Oklahoma State Department of Health says it’s at the beginning of a major overhaul.

Speaking to a state Senate appropriations subcommittee today, Interim Commissioner Keith Reed said the agency has been working with a consulting group for the past year on “reimagining vision, mission and values.”

Reed said the new vision of OSDH is to lead Oklahoma to "prosperity through health." Formerly, its vision was to create "a state of health."

Reflecting the new fiscal language is an effort to manage money. Reed said OSDH is reliant on federal grants and is trying to handle applications better through an embedded grants office. The agency has also started negotiating contracts.

“We are moving away from a stance of just accepting whatever the going rate is,” said Reed.

In Reed’s presentation materials, one slide mentioned a “first primary win” in saving $8 million with a “key COVID response contract.”

During his approximately hour-long presentation, Reed referenced OSDH's overhaul frequently and said it will see a “redesign of all core functions” as well as workforce analysis.

“Making sure we have the right people in the right positions with the right job descriptions so they are doing the work of the agency as we need them to do it,” said Reed.

Boosting technological capabilities of OSDH is critical, Reed said. OSDH getting financial systems online was a big success but there is “much work to do."

“We recognize many deficiencies that came to light during the pandemic response,” said Reed. “We’re trying to move away from this being the trailing edge of public health.”

Reed said data collection is a real problem since the agency doesn’t have a way to digitally store records.

“I’m embarrassed, but it is a fact we must face. We are working on reconciling data and getting electronic health record,” said Reed.

Reed said the agency is trying to create an actual IT budget. Formerly, OSDH relied on a patchwork of funds for tech help.

“That cobbled approach is one reason we’re in the situation we’re in now with failing IT systems.”

OSDH is asking for $11 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2023, including $5 million for IT services and $4.2 million for the repayment of a bond issued for the public health lab in 2017.

Reed said if American Rescue Plan funds come through to repay the public health lab bond, the $4.2 million won’t be needed for that purpose.

On the subject of the embattled public health lab, Sen. Frank Simpson (R-District 14) asked for a timeline on the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence.

Reed said the public health lab and OPCIE are different entities.

“The pandemic center is mostly a vision as this point. It’s still in the works. What we’re focused on now is getting our public health laboratory up and running,” said Reed.

In June, Reed said, he anticipates all testing will return to the public health lab. He said the lab is waiting on equipment to restore microbiology testing.

“That will get our public health lab back to absolute full capacity.”

In the meantime, Dr. Pravin Mishra is overseeing OPCIE to form partnerships with the Department of Agriculture to create a biorepository.

Reed said the main connection between OPCIE and the health lab will be the sharing of equipment.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.