For the first time since October 2017, the commissioner of Oklahoma’s department of health meets the statutory requirements for the position.
Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday named Col. Lance Frye as the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s interim commissioner, replacing Gary Cox who announced his resignation earlier this month. His resignation came after reports that the State Senate would not confirm him for the position.
Frye, board certified in obstetrics and gynecology, is also an air surgeon for the state’s Air National Guard.
At a press conference Friday, Frye said he was excited to helm the health department, and said he wanted to “build upon what we’ve already started” in terms of the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Oklahoma Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge referred to Frye on Friday as being central to the state’s hospital surge plan that Loughridge said was “being held as a model in surge planning in rural states.”
Loughridge said that amid a hot spot in positive coronavirus tests in a meat processing plant in Guymon, Frye traveled to Texas County to work there directly.
“He went himself,” Loughridge said. “This is no surprise working with someone who has worked in theater, picking up wounded folks. It’s no surprise his first instinct would be to go himself.
“It’s what made me utterly confident in recommending him as the right person to step into this leadership position.”
Stitt said Frye “stood out above the crowd.”
One thing that may have helped his standing is the fact that Frye is a licensed medical doctor. Oklahoma’s health commissioner must meet statutory requirements to hold the position, and must either:
- Possess a Doctor of Medicine Degree and have a license to practice in the state;
- Possess an Osteopathic Medicine Degree and have a license to practice in the state;
- Possess a Doctoral degree in Public Health or Public Health Administration; or
- Possess a Master of Science Degree and a minimum of five years of supervisory experience in the administration of health services.
Frye’s predecessor, Gary Cox, resigned in part because he did not meet those requirements. But that’s nothing new in Oklahoma, where the last three health commissioners failed to meet statutory requirements necessary to hold the position.
Cox, a lawyer with a background in public health, had been named health commissioner in September 2019. Stitt said he hoped he could approach the state’s Legislature to change the requirements for the position so that Cox would be able to hold the health commissioner title indefinitely. But Cox’s appointment stalled this year amid criticism of spending by the agency, and during a tug of war between Stitt and the Legislature. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter began an audit into OSDH spending amid the pandemic, further complicating Cox’s position.
Cox resigned earlier this month and sent a letter to Stitt thanking him for “your faith in me, my leadership and the team we have built at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.”
“I am excited and hopeful that the vision you have for Oklahoma will continue to charge forward, even in my absence,” Cox wrote.
When Cox was appointed last year, he replaced Tom Bates, who had been appointed as health commissioner on an interim basis in April 2018. Bates, a lawyer, had worked in the state attorney general’s office for more than a decade before leaving to work with former Gov. Mary Fallin.
He also did not meet statutory requirements for the OSDH commissioner job. But he resigned in 2019 to work with the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Bates had replaced interim commissioner Preston Doerflinger in April 2018 after Doerflinger abruptly resigned. Like his successors, Doerflinger did not meet statutory requirements for the commissioner role.
Doerflinger, who also served as the state’s finance secretary, was named interim health commissioner in 2017 as the OSDH was mired in controversy. Allegations of misspending had dogged the agency which announced suddenly that year it was in financial ruin and was being forced to lay off more than 200 employees.
Doerflinger, with his background in finance, was tasked by Fallin with steering the agency back to solvency. However Doerflinger resigned in February 2018 after a story by The Frontier detailed prior domestic abuse allegations made against him by his wife.
Doerflinger had replaced Terry Cline, who resigned in late 2017 after the OSDH announced its financial struggles. He had served in the position since 2009.
Court records show Frye was sued in 2017 by a family who alleged their son, delivered by Frye in 2012, suffered “severe personal injuries” as a result of “reckless” actions by Frye. The child, born in 2012, was induced at 36 weeks because his mother was diabetic, according to the lawsuit. There were difficulties with the birth, and the birth had to be assisted with forceps, the lawsuit states, and suffered damage to his right shoulder.
In 2013, the child underwent spinal surgery, but did not regain function in his right arm, and still has “severe, permanent injuries to his right arm, including … a serve right internal rotation contracture of his right shoulder and a completely flail right arm,” the lawsuit states.
Frye, in a response, denied the allegations. The case remains pending and a hearing date is set for next week.