Justin Forney worked for the state Department of Health for 12 years as a public information officer, stationed in several county health departments, including Logan County.
Then, in the wake of a financial crisis that shook the department, Forney lost his job in March – the result of cuts of nearly 200 health department positions.
Forney is still unemployed. And on Thursday, as the news rolled out statewide that a grand jury had found the agency’s reported cash shortfall never happened, he felt a sense of shock.
He got a text from a former co-worker: “This was all for nothing?”
“It’s really a strange feeling,” Forney said. “Surprise is the best word. Of all the things the grand jury could have come back with, this was one I definitely didn’t think of.”
Forney’s reaction, though more personal, reflected how many Oklahomans felt about the conclusion of a months-long investigation and audit of the Health Department’s financial situation. A $30 million infusion of cash from the Legislature to close the gap and a slashing of jobs had all been unnecessary. There was stunned disbelief.
“Why was my pay for providing children’s mental health services cut 30%?” one woman said on Facebook. “Infuriating!”
Some Republican legislators called the findings in the grand jury report and investigative audit examples of inept bureaucracies that don’t need revenue from the historic tax increase the Legislature passed in March. Others called for criminal prosecution. Some Democratic legislators said the agency’s actions were a desperate way to preserve its ability to do its job amid years of cost-cutting.
The key players in the debacle largely deflected blame toward others. Former employees who lost their jobs because of the imaginary cash crunch say they want to look ahead, but it’s hard when they know they should still be working.
All seem to agree, however, that the $30 million should be used for a change that brings more accountability or helps others (or both) – and is not, again, an illusion.
Charities That Took a Hit
Service providers who have traditionally relied on Health Department funding were among the first to feel the effects of the alleged cash crunch that threatened the agency’s ability to pay its employees. The diverse group includes community health care centers and private agencies that provide child-abuse prevention counseling.
Agencies contacted by Oklahoma Watch sounded hopeful that perhaps the worst is behind them and the cuts they endured can be reversed.
“It’s incomprehensible that core services were eliminated to children and families for child abuse prevention services when apparently the money was there the whole time,” said Sherry Fair, executive director of Parent Promise in Oklahoma City.
The organization is one of nine contractors in Oklahoma with five-year contracts to provide child-abuse prevention services that were cancelled last year amid the crisis. The organizations were to receive $2 million annually combined.
For Parent Promise, it was a loss of $276,202. The organization has kept its services going through private donations. In 2017, Parent Promise did more than 1,900 home visits to 154 families.
Fair said her organization has had positive conversations with the health department’s new leadership about next steps. She said she’s hopeful the contract can be restored. Service providers are also aware it may take some time, as the health department absorbs the audit and grand jury’s findings and recommendations.
“It appears the money was there when they canceled the contacts and it appears with the new budget the money should be there,” Fair said.
Federally qualified community health centers suffered $1.9 million in canceled contracts. The centers offer discounted services to the uninsured, with a sliding fee scale based on income. The state funding is a way for covering uncompensated care when programs like Medicaid and Medicare are unavailable.
“We took a substantial hit,” said Brent Wilburn, director of public policy for the Oklahoma Primary Care Association.
Roughly 20 organizations operate community health centers around the state, serving more than 200,000 Oklahomans.
Wilburn said he’s hopeful that there can be positive discussions moving forward about how to use the funding in a way that benefits those who need services.
“I think it’s certainly important that we re-evaluate the intricacies of what those expenditures are,” he said. “That $30 million is still there.”
The health department cuts forced Variety Care, which serves low-income, uninsured patients at community health centers, to freeze open positions and delay hiring after a contract was canceled. Both the child abuse prevention contracts and the uncompensated care contracts were hurt in the same way, she said.
“They were sort of slaughtered in all this craziness,” said Lou Carmichael, chief executive officer at Variety Care. “There were a lot of people who needed services and now it looks as though it wasn’t even a money issue.”
Carmichael said the dedicated staff at the health department understand the value of community health centers but were affected by poor leadership.
“This was a crisis of leadership and management,” she said. “It was not a crisis of common interests because the staff people at the department of health understand the importance of primary care.”
Legislators Who Didn’t Have All Facts
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, expressed disappointment in lack of criminal prosecution and promised to look into whether anyone from the department lied to the House Special Investigation Committee while under oath.
“Leaders of the Health Department and others apparently lied to the Legislature. We will be reviewing testimony provided to the Legislature under oath to determine who, specifically, may have lied to us about those issues,” he said.
Rep. Kevin Calvey said in a statement, “The grand jury findings prove exactly what we conservatives in the Legislature have been saying all along: that the Health Department deliberately spent money on its own pet projects, what the grand jury called a ‘slush fund,’ rather than spending the money on core programs.” He said other slush funds need to be exposed.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, House Minority Caucus Chair, placed some blame on Republicans, tweeting, “This is exactly what the House Dems feared happened. Because of Republican fiscal mismanagement, agencies were forced to try to keep accounts from being raided by the legislature. Also, this is why it’s almost criminal that (Republicans) have cut the auditor’s office by about 40%.”
Current and Former Health Officials
Current state Health Department leaders declined to comment Thursday.
“We won’t have any comment until we have had a chance to thoroughly review the audit report and the grand jury report,” said department spokesman Tony Sellars.
The agency’s former chief financial officer, Mike Romero, who testified to lawmakers, said he watched the press conference and questioned the statements that the health department was not insolvent.
He pointed to State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones’ statement that the agency’s finances “got very close” to insolvency. Jones said the department, with its $380 million budget, had only $2 million at some points in time.
“With a nearly $6 million dollar biweekly payroll obligation and no bank line of credit, any financial professional would call that insolvency or being unable to pay debts as they come due,” Romero said. “This is exactly what I said and why the issues were brought to light.”
Preston Doerflinger, the former secretary of health and finance secretary, who resigned earlier this year, issued a statement saying, “The decisions to request a supplemental and to proceed with a Reduction in Force (RIF) at OSDH were not made in a vacuum. I and others were working with the best information available at the time” provided by Romero and then Chief Operating Officer Deborah Nichols. Both gave him a “bleak financial outlook.”
Those Who Lost Jobs or Pay
The health department’s current workforce is 1,619 full-time-equivalent employees.
But in the wake of the financial crisis, the agency eliminated 198 positions, including layoffs.
One of those is Joleyne Temple, was laid off after 28 years with the health department. She worked as a district nurse manager in Pauls Valley, supervising staff in four counties.
Temple said she has been unemployed since, because public health nursing is a specialized field.
“Our world was turned upside down on that day because none of us wanted to leave,” she said, adding: “There’s no leadership there, and that’s the whole thing.”
Temple said she is willing to go back to the health department. But she has yet to hear from the department and isn’t sure what the future holds for her former employer.
“We need our jobs back,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll hear from them or not.”
For now, Temple and others are still wondering how the health department managed to misplace millions of dollars.
“Something doesn’t pass the smell test here if you ask me,” she said.
Sterling Zearley, who heads the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said there could be legal ramifications for the unnecessary dismissal of so many employees. Calling many back would be difficult, because many may have other jobs and if they had received a reduction-in-force package, they would have to pay it back on a pro-rated basis. He said it’s possible that employees could sue for wrongful termination, and he’s seeking legal input on the issue.