As troubles mount, state health department employees file nearly 600 anonymous ‘concerns’ in less than a month

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A system designed to let employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Health anonymously report “concerns” in the wake of recent controversy there received almost 600 reports in less than a month. Courtesy News9

A system designed to let employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Health anonymously report “concerns” in the wake of recent controversy there received almost 600 reports in less than a month.

The system was put in place not long after Preston Doerflinger was named as interim Health Department Commissioner in October. He was appointed to the position by Gov. Mary Fallin after former commissioner Terry Cline abruptly resigned.

Health department spokesman Tony Sellars said the employee concerns are being managed by a third party to keep them anonymous. That third party, Incognea.to, organizes the responses and then submits a summary to Doerflinger, Sellars said.

“No OSDH employees are involved in reviewing the information,” Sellars said. “The data is put into a readable format for Preston and provided to him.”

It’s unclear if Doerflinger has already received one of these summaries, or what, if any, actions are being taken or considered based on the employee concerns.

The Frontier asked Sellars on Monday for a copy of the report, if it existed, as well as for a statement from Doerflinger or the health department. The request did not receive a response Monday, and on Tuesday emails to Sellars were met with an automated response stating that he was on furlough until Dec. 6.

Furloughs for employees of the health department are one of the cost-saving measures implemented in the fallout from the financial calamity the agency is facing.

Tumultuous year

It has been a troubled end of the year for the health department, which announced furloughs and staff reductions after reports surfaced that millions of dollars had been mismanaged over the years.   

Last week, Oklahoma Watch reported that the state’s multicounty grand jury is investigating those same financial problems, an investigation that could lead to criminal charges. On the same day, Doerflinger, and Fallin aides Denise Northrup and Chris Benge received subpoenas from a House committee led by Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette.

“The committee will focus its investigation into the finances, state appropriations and other financial resources of the Department of Health and how they were managed,” according to a news release sent by Cockroft. “The scope of the committee’s investigation could expand to other agencies.”

The subpoenas were later withdrawn after it was announced Doerflinger, Benge, and Northtrup were voluntarily cooperating with the committee.

State Auditor Gary Jones, at the behest of Attorney General Mike Hunter, is simultaneously conducting an investigative audit of the department.

There also has been unprecedented upper-level turnover. At least seven top officials have resigned from the health department since October.

Despite legislators in November approving $30 million for the health department so the agency could make payroll, its current financial picture remains perilous. The funding is contingent on a future 15 percent cut, Oklahoma Watch reported.

The beleaguered agency has also faced mounting outside pressure, as reporters have been looking into the financial issues there as well.

On Dec. 1, Oklahoman reporter Dale Denwalt wrote that a records request he filed in early October with the health department had still not been fulfilled.

“An agency spokesman gave several reasons for the delay, including staff turnover. A month after the request was filed, Health Commissioner Terry Cline resigned, and the next day, the agency’s top lawyer was forced out. Spokesman Tony Sellars also said that at one point, officials realized there were emails that weren’t collected in the first search,” Denwalt wrote.

Sellars also told the newspaper that the health department had hired a new general counsel during the preceding two months, which complicated the request. The story ended with Denwalt noting his records request had still not been fulfilled.

The Frontier also has two outstanding records requests with the health department, requests that have not received a response since October.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan is a news junkie, fantasy sports advocate and QuikTrip addict. When he's not refreshing Twitter, setting too many fantasy lineups or munching on a taquito, he spends his time covering crime and social issues in Tulsa and around the state. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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