Health department transfers last of $30 million back to Legislature
The state Health Department on Tuesday paid back the last of $30 million in emergency funds it got in 2017 after falsely reporting the agency had a funding shortfall.
"Getting that done today is a big deal," Tom Bates, interim health commissioner, said at a meeting of the State Board of Health. "It allows us to close the door on a chapter of this agency and move forward."
The board appointed Bates interim commissioner in March 2018, following the funding scandal that resulted in multiple resignations and the unnecessary termination of 200 workers.
"We have covered a lot of ground in a year, and I think we've made a lot of progress in a year," Bates said before thanking the staff for their hard work.
Board members voiced concerns about the current outbreak of measles in the United States. No cases have been reported in Oklahoma.
"We need to tighten the rules now before we have an outbreak," said Board Member Charles Skillings, CEO of St. Anthony Shawnee Hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 465 cases of measles have been confirmed in 19 states so far this year, the second-greatest number of cases for the first quarter since measles was eliminated in 2000.
Each year, the Legislature considers bills to lessen requirements for childhood immunizations. The state mandates a series of seven vaccines for children, unless parents receive an exemption.
Pediatricians would like to see no personal exemptions, only medical exemptions, but it's a tough political issue, said Board Member Edward Legako, a pediatrician from Lawton.
Oklahoma's exemption rate is 2.2%, with 1.8 percent being personal exemptions, department spokesman Tony Sellars said. About 77% of Oklahomans of all ages have received the seven immunizations, he said. Experts say a population that drops below 75% no longer has "herd immunity."
"As the Health Department, we need to be very vocal and forthright in our support of vaccinations," Bates said. "We have to be the voice of science to expel myths. Exemptions have gotten too easy to obtain. We need to tighten them up."
Jerome Loughridge, Oklahoma's new secretary of health and mental health, attended the meeting and thanked board members and Bates for their work that affects the lives of all Oklahomans.