The Oklahoma State Department of Health building in Oklahoma City.

Jackie Fortier / StateImpact

Oklahoma Public Health Laboratory relocation plan draws blowback

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the long-awaited facility would move to Stillwater, nearly 70 miles from its current site

  • Catherine Sweeney

The Frontier’s Kassie McClung and StateImpact Oklahoma’s Catherine Sweeney partnered on this report.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s sudden announcement last week that the state’s public health laboratory will move to Stillwater quickly garnered opposition.

Within a matter of days, elected officials and employee advocates raised concerns that the move would shove out employees who have been with the lab for decades, that moving the lab from a central location would hamper its ability to serve the state as a whole, and that the funding mechanisms the Stitt administration plans to employ could be inappropriate. 

During a news conference last week, Stitt announced Oklahoma will build a new public health laboratory. The current facility is in such a state of disrepair, it was once at risk of losing its accreditation, which would force it to close. Officials have urged the investment for decades. However, Stitt announced the building would be in Stillwater, about 70 miles from the current location within the State Department of Health headquarters in Oklahoma City’s biomedical hub. The Stitt administration’s position is that the relocation will enhance Oklahoma’s rural medical capacity.

The plan involves building a new lab in Stillwater, a process that will take years. But the move will happen sooner; the administration is creating an interim location there, which is slated to open by the end of 2020.

The facility and its staff provide a spate of critical services. The most visible as of late has been coronavirus testing, but other responsibilities include disease screenings for all Oklahoma newborns and training for private labs.

 The Oklahoma Public Employees Association submitted letters to several lawmakers regarding the announcement. The letter states that the move will affect at least 60 Oklahoma state employees, many  who have been working in the current facility for 20 years or more. It says those employees weren’t consulted about the relocation, despite the fact that for many, it would either mean moving or quitting. The association requested a meeting with Stitt and top legislative leaders to discuss the move.

The health department did not respond to a question about whether employees were alerted of the move prior to the Oct. 7 news conference, but an agency spokesman said in an email that all 65 employees were offered to keep their current positions. 

 Dr. Edd Rhoades worked at the Oklahoma State Department of Health for more than 40 years and was the chief medical officer before he retired on Jan 1. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, he said he was “shocked” by the announcement of the move and was critical of the governor’s decision. He similarly raised concerns about the workers in the lab, as well as about logistical problems the new location could create.

Most public health lab employees learned of the move from news reports, he said. 

“These are dedicated state employees who love working to serve the people of Oklahoma in lieu of working for higher pay at the commercial laboratories,” Rhoades’ post reads in part. “Governor Stitt assumes that they will all be willing to commute an average 2 hours one way to continue the hard work that they do. … But the fact is that in a few short months, the vast majority of Public Health Laboratory employees will be unable to make the move and will be forced to resign their positions.”

Rhoades said it was critical the public health lab remain in Oklahoma City, near the state health department and the Oklahoma Health Science Center’s campus. 

“The Public Health Laboratory is located within 10 minutes of all major interstates that crisscross the state of Oklahoma,” he wrote. “Also, because it is centrally located in Oklahoma City, it can respond to the vast majority of the state within a few hours.”

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, issued a news release on Monday, criticizing the decision and announcing he would file legislation to block it. He also cautioned against moving the lab away from existing infrastructure in Oklahoma City. 

 “Locating the lab in an already established major medical complex where it can function in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation will help in the recruitment of top doctors and other medical staff and keep services central for all Oklahomans,” his statement reads in part.

He and two of his Democratic colleagues criticized the laboratory’s funding plan, as well.

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, otherwise known as the CARES Act, this spring. It allotted funding to all states, including $1.2 billion to Oklahoma. The Stitt administration said it planned to use some of that funding, as well as $58.5 million in   Legislature-authorized bonds, to build the new facility.  

During the initial transition, the state will use the public health lab’s current staff and operating budget of about $9.5 million, officials said on Wednesday. But as the lab partners with other agencies and entities, such as the veterinary labs, the state will bring in additional employees who specialize in those areas.

Two Democratic state senators representing Oklahoma City, Carri Hicks and Julia Kirt, issued a joint- news release Thursday. They and Martinez agreed that the state needs a new laboratory, but cautioned that using $25 million in CARES funding might be inappropriate. 

“…Using federal CARES funding for an infrastructure problem caused by decades of neglect and that will take years to solve misses the needs of Oklahomans in this critical time,” the Democrats’ release stated in part.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin on Monday called on the governor’s office to present a “bipartisan presentation” that would support his decision to move the lab. 

“It is extremely rare for a single person, even a governor, to have the ability to unilaterally make the decision to close, remodel and rebuild a state asset, using millions of taxpayer dollars, without any direct input from the public or state employees who serve the agency. It may be unprecedented in Oklahoma,” Virgin said in a news release.