Governor’s pick to lead health agency lacks Senate support
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gov. Kevin Stitt’s pick to lead the Oklahoma State Department of Health doesn’t have enough support in the state Senate to secure the job, a key senator said Monday.
Sen. Greg McCortney, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said interim Health Commissioner Gary Cox doesn’t have enough votes to be confirmed, and so his nomination won’t be considered at the committee’s last scheduled meeting Monday afternoon.
“This is not, in my mind, a shot at the governor from the Legislature at all,” McCortney, a Republican from Ada, told The Associated Press. “It ended up being that the number of questions and concerns about this nomination just overwhelmed it in the end.”
Among senators’ top concerns was that Cox, an attorney, lacks the qualifications to be state commissioner, including at least a master of science degree. A bill that would have adjusted those qualifications stalled in the Legislature this year.
Stitt said in a statement Monday that Cox’s 40 years of experience in public health make him more than qualified and that he is the “right leader to transform the agency while also successfully confronting a historic health crisis and protecting the lives of Oklahomans.”
Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said the Senate has until the end of May to grant Cox a hearing and that “the governor hopes in the midst of this historic global pandemic our legislators will do the right thing and take the time to consider Commissioner Cox’s nomination.”
Cox has said previously that Stitt picked him mostly because of his experience working as director of city-county health departments in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. State audits of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department during his tenure uncovered numerous problems.
In 2012, auditors discovered that one employee was earning salaries from the health departments in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City while also running his own consulting business.
“OCCHD management knew this employee was working full-time at (Tulsa Health Department) and did not alert THD to this, nor prepare proper OCCHD documentation in regards to dual employment,” auditors wrote.
The following year, state auditors blamed a “lack of management oversight” for several problems at the agency, including employees working for outside nonprofits on agency time, improper fuel card use and unallowable purchases, including hundreds of dollars on retirement parties.
Cox said in a statement Monday that he is focused on protecting Oklahomans from COVID-19 and that his nomination is up to the governor and Legislature.
“This process is up to the executive and legislative branch, and my job is to ensure the state has the right plan, the best team, and transparent data to advance public health during this unprecedented time,” Cox said.
Cox’s lack of support in the Senate was first reported by the online news outlet NonDoc.
Stitt picked Cox in September to lead the 1,800-employee agency. He was the fifth agency head in a tumultuous two-year period that saw top officials resign and financial operations so badly bungled that nearly 200 employees lost their jobs unnecessarily.
Meanwhile, state health officials on Monday reported 24 new positive cases of COVID-19 and two new deaths, bringing the statewide total to more than 4,600 positive cases and 274 deaths. The number of actual infections is thought to be far higher because any people haven’t been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without showing symptoms.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
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