Staff shortages and equipment transition for the relocated Public Health Lab in Stillwater have caused state health officials to outsource certain tests to private labs, and in some cases to a public health lab in Minnesota.
The move will cause delays between 24 to 48 hours for some microbiology tests, according to an email obtained by Oklahoma Watch and sent earlier this week by John Murray, the lab’s acting administrative director.
Among the tests to be outsourced were those used for E.coli, meningitis and salmonella. The tests to be sent to Minnesota were those that involve infections that could be picked up in a healthcare setting.
It will not affect newborn screening, which is among the highest priorities for the public health lab because the early detection of some genetic disorders at birth can mean the difference between life and death for newborns. It also won’t affect testing for COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Kayser, the lab’s new director, said the outsourced testing was due to the transition of equipment from the old lab in Oklahoma City.
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“We are referencing out some of the PHL’s microbiology testing while we move existing equipment from the current lab to the new lab and have the equipment re-validated,” Kayser said in a statement. “Referencing out tests to other labs is not uncommon and this move may actually result in quicker turnaround times on results as our current turnaround time on these tests is between 3-28 days.”
Kayser said the outsourcing of testing was not due to the staff shortage mentioned in the email by Murray. He said any additional spending would be absorbed by the public health lab budget, “which has costs associated with referenced testing built in because it is a common occurrence.”
“This was not unforeseen, is not due to staff shortages and was planned all along to ensure no disruption occurs during the transition,” he said in a later statement. “It is highly common for labs to reference out testing. We have said from the beginning Oklahomans will notice no disruption in testing services as the lab is moved in phases, and this maintains that commitment.”
Relocating the Public Health Lab and putting it under the umbrella of the new Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence has been a controversial move by Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Critics in the Legislature, at medical organizations and at the Oklahoma Public Employees Association have said the timing was wrong to move the public health lab amid a global pandemic.
The health department was limited in its options when it moved from its aging headquarters on NE 10 Street in Oklahoma City to a former energy company building downtown that couldn’t accommodate the lab.
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, filed a bill that would require agencies to get the Legislature’s approval to move public assets like the lab more than 10 miles away. House Bill 1921 has not yet had a hearing in the House Rules committee.
“I think all Oklahomans should be alarmed that this lab was unilaterally moved, and now the problems are coming to fruition that we predicted would come to fruition,” Martinez said Thursday. “Oklahomans deserve to have a health lab that’s providing accurate and timely results for important testing, but it sounds like that is problematic.”
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Tom Dunning, communications director for the public employees association, said the outsourcing of some lab testing wasn’t a surprise. More than a dozen out of 35 employees of the public health lab who were asked to relocate chose not to make the move to Stillwater, The Oklahoman reported earlier this week. Other staff reductions from the 50 employed by the lab came from retirements or attrition.
“The lab move has been rushed through during the biggest public health crisis this state has ever experienced, and we’re now seeing the consequences in delays in obtaining results and higher costs due to outsourcing to other labs,” Dunning said Thursday in an email. “There has been little oversight of this whole move outside of the health department, and it’s likely not the last delays we will see.”
Stitt and health department officials last month opened the temporary lab space and pandemic center at a former Devon Energy Corp. office complex in Stillwater. In a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Stitt said the combination of the lab and research at OSU would help attract additional scientific talent to the state. The lab’s relocation and a permanent space is being funded mostly by the federal CARES Act.
“This facility won’t just help our public health, it will help our economy as a whole,” Stitt said. “By partnering with the private sector, we’re going to be able to bring more research and development jobs to our state, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and of course, here in Stillwater. We’re going to compete in new ways for federal research dollars.”
The relocated public health lab will be managed by Prairie One Solutions, a newly formed nonprofit organized by the Oklahoma State University Research Foundation and the health department. The management contract gives Prairie One Solutions a 15% fee based off the annual appropriations of the public health lab, as well as a 15% cut of any insurance-reimbursed costs and new income brought by the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence.
The health department has not yet fulfilled Open Records Act requests made by Oklahoma Watch in December to gather more details about the financial impact of the move of the public health lab or the management by Prairie One Solutions.
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