Oklahoma’s health commissioner would not be required to have any health care or medical experience if they met other job qualifications under a bill requested by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Republican state lawmakers are once again advancing legislation to change state law that spells out the experience required to lead the Oklahoma Health Department.
“The governor wants as much flexibility as possible to recruit the best candidates to state government,” said Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema.
After Health Commissioner Lance Frye resigned in October, Stitt is again hiring for the state’s top health position, a role that has become a revolving door in recent years.
Senate Bill 709 cleared key hurdles in the state Senate where some members were hesitant two years ago to confirm a health commissioner who was unqualified under state law.
The bill from Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, would exempt the health commissioner from current job requirements in state law if the individual possesses at least a master’s degree in any field and has experience managing a state agency or large projects.
State law says the health commissioner must meet one of the following requirements:
- Possess a doctorate in medicine and a license to practice medicine in Oklahoma
- Hold a degree in osteopathic medicine and a license to practice medicine in Oklahoma
- Possess a doctorate degree in public health or public health administration
- Hold a Master of Science degree and have at least five years of supervisory experience in the administration of health services.
“These changes do not eliminate any existing qualifications,” Rosino said on the Senate floor. “(They) just rather broaden the requirements to allow more flexibility in who leads the State Department of Health.”
When asked if the bill could result in Oklahoma having a health commissioner with no health care experience, Rosino said that could occur.
But he said the proposal aligns with the leadership structure of some hospitals where the CEO may not have any direct health care experience but has a business administration background. In those cases, and as is the case with the health department, there are medical professionals in other top leadership positions, Rosino said.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said SB 709 is ill-advised as Oklahoma is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One thing that the pandemic showed us was the need to have qualified medical professionals who are giving us information and data so we know what to do with that,” she said. “Lowering the educational requirements and experience requirements of one of the highest standing commissioners in the state is unwise at this time.”
Stitt asked state lawmakers in 2020 to change the job qualifications for the health commissioner after he appointed Gary Cox to the job. Although Cox spent decades working in public health, he did not meet the qualifications in state law.
The state Senate declined to confirm Cox and legislation to change the job qualifications for the health commissioner stalled.
Now, interim Health Commissioner Keith Reed does not meet the legal requirements to serve in that role permanently. For 19 years, he has worked his way up at the health department, but he has a master’s degree in public health, not a Master of Science degree, as required by law.
Stitt’s office did not respond to a question about if the governor is seeking the legal change so he can appoint Reed to be the next health commissioner.
The governor has interviewed other candidates for the position, including some who do not meet the statutory requirements.
SB 709 passed Monday on a 31-15 vote. The bill now heads to the House.
Additional Capitol updates
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who is running for governor, praised recently passed legislation from Rep. Sheila Dills, R-Tulsa, to reform virtual charter schools.
The state’s top schools official applauded Dills’ House Bill 3644, which updates state law on charter school sponsors, including requiring them to post detailed public reports that go into their performance, services provided and oversight expenses. Under the legislation, sponsors would have to enforce academic performance metrics and members of charter school governing boards would have to undergo the same continuing education requirements as local school board members.
“This legislation would mean significant reform for oversight of charter school management,” Hofmeister said in a statement. “While more work remains to be done to ensure there is not a repeat of the problems Oklahoma saw with Epic (Charter Schools), House Bill 3644 tightens existing regulations that enable charter schools to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money.”
Dills has a trio of charter school reform bills that passed the House with unanimous support. She said the proposals will ensure taxpayer dollars are protected and that the state has accurate and transparent accounting of how they are spent.
The proposals come after the state’s multicounty grand jury called for the Legislature to beef up accountability and transparency laws around for-profit companies that manage charter schools.
Toward the end of the legislative session last year, the House passed similar charter school reforms from Dills that were not taken up by the Senate.
Lawmakers eye Holocaust education
The House advanced last week bipartisan legislation that would require all public schools to teach Holocaust education in a manner that helps kids understand the causes and effects of the tragedy and develops a dialogue on the ramifications of bullying, bigotry and discrimination.
The State Department of Education would be tasked with developing and distributing the curriculum to students in the 6th-12th grades.
Five Republicans voted against the bill from Reps. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, and Mark McBride, R-Moore. They are: Reps. Denise Crosswhite Hader, R-Piedmont; Tommy Hardin, R-Madill; Wendi Stearman, R-Collinsville; Rick West, R-LeFlore, and Tom Gann, R-Inola.
The lawmakers did not respond to questions about why they opposed the bill.
McBride said the opposition may have stemmed from the fact that the legislation said Holocaust education “shall” be taught, as opposed to “may” be taught.
First bill signings of session
Stitt signed his first six bills of this legislative session.
Perhaps the most notable new law is House Bill 4463, which repeals part of a law from last year that required the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to hire 76 new staffers, many of whom work in compliance and enforcement positions.
Saying the agency has made “significant” progress toward filling those positions, House Appropriations Chairman Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, who authored the legislation, said lawmakers made an agreement with the agency to repeal the specific number of positions OMMA was required to add.
Under the new law signed by Stitt, the OMMA can hire “additional staff” as needed to regulate medical marijuana and enforce state laws.