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Oklahoma State Health Department budget gap grows to $30 million

Terry Cline has resigned as commissioner of Oklahoma State Health Department. [The Oklahoman Archives]

Terry Cline has resigned as commissioner of Oklahoma State Health Department. [The Oklahoman Archives]

The Oklahoma Health Department has a funding gap of at least $30 million and eventually won't be able to pay employees unless it receives an injection of cash from the Legislature, its new leader told employees Thursday.

In an emotional, two-hour meeting with Health Department workers, Interim Health Commissioner Preston Doerflinger described the situation as "desperate."

When the Health Department announced furloughs for some employees in September, the agency was already close to running out of money, Doerflinger said.

"I can't tell you how narrow of a situation this was," he said. " ... It was within a very narrow sliver of being more than a crisis."

Doerflinger said he has already spoken with state legislators and that he was confident about getting additional funding to keep the Health Department running and meeting payroll.

Work furloughs will continue while the agency tries to shore up its finances and layoffs are also possible, Doerflinger said.

Passing around a microphone, health workers at the meeting raised concerns about whether they would be continued to be paid or be able to pay for hotels and gas while traveling for work.

One woman said she had started drinking at night to deal with the stress of the situation.

Another man said it was common knowledge that misstated financial statements had been presented to the Board of Health in the past. The man said he worked in the Health Department's finance division.

"We had been sounding the alarm for years and nobody was listening," he said. "I'm glad this has happened."

Doerflinger said he couldn't answer questions about how the department had a $30 million budget shortfall, or whether or not there could eventually be criminal charges resulting from the crisis.

"It's going to be known. It will be revealed," Doerflinger said. "What we can say here today is that there were some significant problems."

On Thursday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter asked State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones to conduct an investigative audit of the Health Department.

An investigative audit could lead to criminal charges if evidence of illegal activity is uncovered.

The Attorney General's Office said Thursday that it could not provide additional information about the investigation into the Health Department's finances.

Faced with a crisis after what it called “years of over-expenditures and fiscal mismanagement,” the State Board of Health accepted the resignation of Commissioner Terry Cline during an emergency meeting Monday evening.

Cline's resignation came after the board received information that the Oklahoma State Health Department faces an “immediate financial loss” due to mismanagement, according to a statement released to the media after the meeting.

The Board of Health picked Doerflinger to lead the Health Department after Cline's departure. Doerflinger is also Oklahoma's secretary of finance.

Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›

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