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How do you solve a problem like the Health Department?

Oklahoma City — A commission to improve public health services in Oklahoma recommended setting up a board where local health departments can share their views with the state.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order Nov. 7 to create a commission made up of state and local health department officials. The commission was tasked with coming up with ways to improve the public health system and making recommendations about the state health department's budget for the fiscal year starting in July. The commission began meeting in January.

The commission wasn't able to perform the budget portion of its job because some important information wasn't available, said Gary Cox, executive director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. It did, however, come up with a list of recommendations to improve public health services, he told the board of the Oklahoma State Department of Health at its meeting on Tuesday.

One of the first steps is to determine the fundamental public health services, and then to decide how best to provide them, Cox said. County health departments could decide to offer extra services with their local millage money or with federal grants, he said.

According to the report, fundamental services fall into five broad categories: communicable disease control, chronic disease and injury prevention, environmental public health, access to clinical care, and maternal and child health.

“There's a set of services that should be available to every Oklahoman regardless of where you live,” Cox said.

The commission also suggested creating a “joint council” to review health data, prioritize services, develop public-private partnerships, review spending and evaluate program outcomes. The council would advise the governor, Legislature and board of health, Cox said. The state Health Department, Oklahoma and Tulsa city-county health departments and some county health departments would have representatives on the council, he said.

“I think it's time that the counties be involved, the metros be involved” in making decisions, he said.

The commission also recommended giving local health departments more freedom to make budget decisions, combine forces to offer services at the regional level and partner with private groups.

In some communities, the health department may need to offer all of the fundamental services, while it may make more sense in other places to partner with a medical clinic to offer some services, he said.

Other recommendations included updating the health department's information technology infrastructure so counties can get data faster; coming up with a funding formula for local departments based on population and need in the area; and eventually creating a shared electronic health record system that includes records from the immunization registry, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

A federal grant may help pay for some of the groundwork to build the new electronic record system, Cox said.

More work remains to modernize the Health Department, Cox said, but he's optimistic about the process moving forward.

“We did the best we could for the amount of time we had,” he said. “This is just a beginning, but it's an important beginning, and I believe it's an opportunity.”

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Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›