OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – During the pandemic we heard a lot from Oklahoma State Department of Health officials. Now, a bill is on the way to change the State Health Commissioner’s qualifications.

Supporters of SB 709 say changing the qualifications widens the pool of candidates. Those opposed say it gives the Oklahoma Governor too many loopholes to name someone who is not qualified.

“In 2019, the legislature made an ill-informed decision to neuter the effectiveness of the agency board for the Department of Health, taking away all oversite capabilities for that agency board and replacing it with what I refer to as ‘friends of the governor,” said Rep. Andy Fugate.

Opponents say that is the origin of SB 709. The measure was debated and passed on the House floor on Wednesday. Currently a candidate for Health Commissioner would need an MD, DO, Doctorate of Public Health or a Master of Science with experience managing a large state agency or project. This bill would change the requirement to any Master’s degree.

“By broadening this just a little bit, we are expanding the potential pool of candidates.” said Rep. Cindy Roe of Lindsay.

“Wouldn’t we be better off making sure people in position of authority in this field know what kind of questions to ask, because they have the right background? “ asked Rep. John Waldron.

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Oklahoma State Capitol. Photo from KFOR.

But the bills author says that’s why, consulting with the State Health Department and the Oklahoma Medical Association, SB 709 would create a chief medical officer position, appointed by the commissioner.

“If you look at a hospital administrator, for instance, that’s typically not a physician. It’s just someone overseeing the overall hospital operations,” said Roe.

“These changes came about when there were certain heads of health agencies that wanted masks as opposed to those who didn’t.” said Rep. Regina Goodwin.

Opponents say this bill is politically driven. In 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointment of Gary Cox as Health Commissioner was shot down by the State Senate when Cox didn’t meet listed requirements. Some say the governor has a track record of this, naming an unqualified candidate to head up the Land Office and a person without a college degree to the State Regents for Higher Education.

“The Governor should cast a vision that people can get on board with instead of having a governor go around and put their own hand-picked people in to do his or her bidding,” said Fugate.

The Governor’s Office declined to comment on the bill. The State Department of Health issued the following statement to KFOR:

“SB 709 does not eliminate any existing qualifications for the state commissioner of health. However, it does provide an exemption should the candidate have a master’s degree and experience in management of state agencies or large projects. This allows for more flexibility and opens the selection to a broader pool of candidates to choose from when determining who leads the State Department of Health. Similar to common hospital leadership structure, OSDH maintains a Chief Medical Officer to ensure medical expertise is always integrated into the leadership team, if passed, this bill would make certain that continues.”

OSDH SPOKESPERSON

Although not officially an appointee, right now Interim Health Commissioner Keith Reed would not qualify for the permanent job, but with the rule change he would.

SB 709 now moves on to the governor’s desk.