There are some monumental changes going on in the way our state government operates. In past years, these changes would have been the cause of outcries and pitched battles over the slightest changes of wording by advocates, pro and con. They would also likely have been preceded by months if not years of studies and planning. The battles may yet happen before session is over, but for now one wonders if anyone is paying attention.
Last Thursday, Speaker McCall dropped a committee substitute for HB 4064 in the House Rules Committee that eliminates the Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and consolidates the agency with the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority. The bill, which prior to the filing of the committee substitute, was a “shell bill” consisting of one sentence. The committee substitute was passed after a short discussion on a 6-2 vote. There were 40 bills on the agenda, on a large variety of subjects, which was probably necessary because most committees had finished their work and would not meet again before the Thursday deadline to pass bills out of committee.
HB 4064 is nine pages long and provides that the “Administrator of the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority will assume the statutory responsibilities of the Commissioner of Mental Health.” For qualifications, the Administrator “shall have the training and experience necessary for the administration of the Authority.” In other words, the Governor can give the job to whomever he wants. Currently, the Commissioner of Mental Health is required to have a doctorate level education in a medical/psychological field or a relevant master’s degree with at least five years of management experience in healthcare.
In past legislatures, both Republican and Democratic, a change like this would be embodied in a bill that could approach 100 pages and that carefully reviews and amends every section of the mental health law where necessary. HB 4064 gets by with simply changing the agency names wherever they appear. It’s as if the first time this came up is when the Governor made his state of the state speech. Now the legislature feels obliged to get something passed. I don’t pretend to know if the mental health and substance abuse field needs its own agency or if it will be an improvement to have it managed as part of a larger health agency. But surely the issue is worthy of some careful planning and consideration.
There are major changes in the works for other agencies. Governor Stitt has taken his election as someone with no prior connection to government as a mandate to make massive changes in the structure of state government. Maybe it was. “Government” is unpopular. But, sometimes it’s good to reflect on why things are the way they are. A lot of good people, in the near and distant past, here and no longer here, fought the good fight to accomplish changes that were viewed as progress at the time. Times change, but out of respect for them and their efforts it behooves all of us, especially people knowledgeable in the field, to pay attention and be heard when major shifts in the operation of our state government are being made.
[Image Credit: Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services on Facebook]