Established in 1950 — over 70 years ago — the Tulsa Health Department serves as the primary public health agency to more than 600,000 Tulsa County residents, including 13 municipalities plus four unincorporated areas.
The agency is one of two locally taxpayer-funded health departments in Oklahoma with jurisdiction on public health matters pertaining to Tulsa County and the city of Tulsa as established by the Oklahoma Constitution.
I and the members of our board are appointed by the Tulsa County Commissioners and the mayor of the city of Tulsa. Our executive director, Bruce Dart, meets specific qualifications for higher education and has the training and experience required for successful leadership of a large public health department. Because of that experience, our board and our community rely upon his advice, particularly in a public health emergency.
House Bill 2504 removes certain authority from the Tulsa City-County Board of Health, including the hiring and firing of the executive director. It also prohibits any actions that are more protective for our community than the state’s actions.
The local Board of Health assumes ultimate responsibility for public health performance in the community by providing local leadership and guidance to our health department in order to support the agency in achieving measurable goals and outcomes.
This has served Tulsa County well for many years with marked improvements in the county health rankings compared to other counties in Oklahoma. Embedded in our local community, we are better able to engage with local partners in support of a community health improvement plan that includes a focus on social determinants of health that impact our local population.
In 2011, Tulsa County was ranked No. 27 in Oklahoma out of 77 counties. By 2019, Tulsa County improved to No. 13, and through targeted initiatives in our county, our community’s health will continue to improve.
A recent argument in favor of the bill that has surfaced is that the Oklahoma State Department of Health needs control of the Oklahoma and Tulsa public health departments to secure more funding for the state.
State funding requests do not carve out Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, just as they do not carve out populations from tribal nation health departments.
In fact, Oklahoma is the 28th most populous state yet ranks 25th in estimated two-year federal funding directed to states per person by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration. Yet, the state of Oklahoma ranks 43rd or worse in every domain of America’s Health Rankings report.
Metro health departments, tribal health departments and the Veterans Administration have made great improvements in health outcomes because they are able to target the specific needs of their populations. This is an established principle of population health.
Locally governed health departments, such as Tulsa’s, are uniquely positioned to provide essential services, collaborate with community partners and engage residents to improve health outcomes.
Because we take a grass-roots approach to health care, and we are embedded within the community, the local Board of Health and Tulsa City-County Health Department are uniquely positioned to respond to public health threats in a manner that supports the needs of our communities and gives us the ability to partner with local organizations to address health issues.
The residents of Tulsa County have been safely guided through the COVID-19 pandemic by a local health department committed to data, transparency, science and equity, and with a focus on the specific needs of the Tulsa County residents whom we represent.
On behalf of the local Board of Health, I am confident our legislators will see this proposed legislation for what it is: a blatant attempt to overstep and centralize power, placing control in the hands of political appointees with allegiances that will potentially undermine the health and safety of Tulsa County residents.
Ann Paul, who holds master’s degree and doctorate in public health, is chair of the Tulsa City-County Board of Health.