As Okla confronted COVID-19 spikes, state used M to relocate lab

As Okla confronted COVID-19 spikes, state used $30M to relocate lab

OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — As COVID-19 instances have been spiking to a few of their highest ranges but, state officers used at the least $30 million in federal pandemic reduction funds to cowl payroll prices on the Oklahoma State Division of Well being. The shuffling of funds freed up thousands and thousands in unrestricted company cash to relocate a lab that performs important public well being testing. 

The state nonetheless faces audits because the federal authorities opinions how reduction cash was spent, and a few say the choice has created transparency and accountability points. The lab was beforehand cited by federal investigators and has struggled to carry out routine testing for the reason that transfer.

Quickly after Gov. Kevin Stitt and state well being officers introduced in October 2020 that the lab would transfer from Oklahoma Metropolis to Stillwater with the assistance of federal reduction funds, a number of state lawmakers stated they have been involved it wasn’t an allowable use of the cash. 

However utilizing the cash to cowl payroll for public well being and security workers working to handle the pandemic was permitted underneath federal guidelines.

As Okla confronted COVID-19 spikes, state used M to relocate lab

With greater than $50 million in pandemic-related payroll prices lined by federal reduction cash, the Well being Division was in a position to make use of $30 million out of its price range that may have in any other case been used to pay employees to maneuver the Public Well being Lab. The Well being Division spent $7 million to buy a brief location for the lab in Stillwater and roughly $22.5 million extra on shifting prices, software program, lab provides and tools, in line with the company. 

A criticism was filed with the U.S. Treasury Workplace of Inspector Common alleging coronavirus reduction cash had been used to maneuver the lab, however investigators closed the matter in October 2021 after confirming the Well being Division used its personal normal fund {dollars}, in line with a Treasury official.

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, vice chair of the state Home Appropriations and Price range Committee, stated he’s nonetheless bothered by how abruptly the Well being Division moved the lab and is “nearly anticipating” the necessity to put aside cash to pay again the federal authorities as audits proceed over the following yr. 

And not using a clear understanding of how companies are spending their cash and what state and federal funding remains to be accessible, Martinez stated it’s tough to see the “complete image” of the state’s price range. 

“There’s a transparency difficulty, which I believe simply begs a number of questions which are unanswered,” Martinez stated. 

The Well being Division did have elevated payroll bills from the pandemic and submitted applicable documentation to make use of reduction cash to cowl a number of the price, the company stated in response to questions from The Frontier.

Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond. REESE GORMAN/The Frontier

“OSDH management is assured that using CARES funding for pandemic-engaged employees payroll was clearly in keeping with the intent and goal of the funding,” stated Rachel Klein, a spokeswoman for the Well being Division. 

Transferring the lab was within the “greatest curiosity of Oklahomans,” the company stated.

“Our earlier lab facility was falling in disrepair, as had been the case for a number of years,” the company stated in an announcement. “The company recognized the necessity to enhance efficiencies and providers inside the public well being lab, and used the alternatives offered by extra funding to strategically meet these rising wants.” 

However for greater than a yr after the transfer to Stillwater, the lab was plagued with staffing shortages, diminished testing capability and federal investigations into its dealing with of COVID-19 testing and different screenings. The lab remains to be outsourcing a number of checks together with for tuberculous, in line with OSDH paperwork, and is now not accredited by the Faculty of American Pathologists after switching to an accreditation program by means of the Facilities for Medicare and Medicaid Companies. 

The state Well being Division did spend practically $260 million in Coronavirus Aid Funds on medical and public well being prices, which included grants to long-term care suppliers, COVID-19 testing and monitoring, and surge contracts for hospitals, in line with the state’s transparency web site. The state additionally used Coronavirus Aid Funds to offer assist to native companies and cash to cities and counties. 

Nonetheless, in December 2020, COVID-19 instances have been on the rise, and solely about 5% of ICU beds have been routinely accessible statewide. Colleges have been shifting between in-person and distance studying as native case numbers fluctuated. Hospitals struggled with staffing shortages and insufficient protecting tools, stated Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Affiliation. 

CARES Ahead, a workforce of state officers appointed by the governor, determined methods to spend reduction cash from the CARES Act. Inner paperwork present the state deliberate for a number of months to make use of reduction funds to reimburse the Well being Division’s pandemic payroll prices so it might transfer the Public Well being Lab from Oklahoma Metropolis to Stillwater. 

Confronted with a decent spending deadline, the workforce noticed utilizing reduction funds to cowl tens of thousands and thousands of {dollars} in company payroll prices associated to the pandemic as a viable resolution to permit companies to make use of state cash for finishing different tasks, stated John Budd, former chief working officer for the state and a member of the CARES Ahead workforce. 

When companies acquired reduction cash to reimburse massive quantities of their payroll bills, it was “usually with an understanding” that they’d use reimbursement cash for particular tasks that had already been agreed upon, Budd stated. 

The CARES Ahead workforce initially had roughly 9 months to spend roughly $1.25 billion in reduction funds. However the deadline was ultimately prolonged. 

A report final yr by a state oversight workplace questioned how the CARES Ahead workforce distributed a number of the cash, discovering {that a} “vital” quantity of reduction funds have been used for pre-existing authorities wants, which could not meet federal requirements. However workforce members defended their choices and stated they have been prepared for any audits.

The U.S. Treasury Workplace of Inspector Common is predicted to audit the state’s use of federal funds over the following yr and Oklahoma’s Legislative Workplace of Fiscal Transparency stated additionally it is working to complete a evaluate of the reduction spending. If the cash is decided to be misspent, the state must pay it again to the federal authorities. 

A number of different states additionally used tons of of thousands and thousands of federal reduction {dollars} to cowl payroll prices for public well being and security workers, in line with the Nationwide Convention of State Legislatures. 

Lawmakers took a new strategy with the newest spherical of $1.8 billion in federal funding to handle the pandemic, giving the Oklahoma Legislature extra say in methods to spend the cash relatively than let the governor’s workplace management the funds. The Legislature authorized funding for dozens of tasks throughout the state in a particular session on the finish of September. 

Printed in partnership with The Frontier, a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impression in Oklahoma.  Learn extra at Free Press publishes this report as a collaborative effort to offer the perfect protection of state points that have an effect on our readers.

Caption for function picture: The Oklahoma Public Well being Lab in Stillwater. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Final Up to date October 16, 2022, 12:13 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor