OKDHS Commission Discusses Agency Concerns

The OKDHS Commission met in Oklahoma City recently to discuss issues affecting the agency, including financial challenges due to Oklahoma’s current budget crisis. OPEA Membership Representative Haley Blood attended the meeting on behalf of the Association.

OKDHS Director Howard Hendrick outlined three major policy issues which he believes, if resolved positively, could reduce the severity of other reductions. First, he believes the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center (NORCE) and Southern Oklahoma Resource Center (SORC) will have to operate at lower costs. This would result in a RIF of 70 employees in these facilities. This is of great concern to OPEA. Several OPEA members work in these facilities. OPEA will be discussing other ways to reduce costs in the agency that will not result in a RIF.

Second, Hendrick believes a commitment to suspend or stop future COLA’s awarded by OPERS must be considered. As reported by Hendrick, the OKDHS contribution to OPERS has doubled over the last five years.

OPEA believes the COLA’s are a necessity for those retired state employees, many from OKDHS who have paid into the system. OPEA recently passed SB 1637 out of the Senate which would provide state retirees a 4% cost of living increase.

The third issue raised was implementation of alternatives to contain healthcare costs for 2011, which have tripled for OKDHS in the last seven years. OPEA agrees the cost of healthcare has risen at an alarming rate and is working hard to provide alternatives for state employees. “The State Employee Health Insurance Working Group recommended several changes to help control cost,” said Blood. “One recommendation is a winner-take-all approach to the HMO’s. This will provide an additional choice to many of our rural state employee members who currently do not have an additional choice like their urban counterparts. However, any reform must also protect the state employee benefit allowance which OPEA worked hard to establish for state employees many years ago.”

Several accomplishments of OKDHS employees were highlighted at the meeting as well, and OPEA commends those employees for their outstanding work. As of February 21, 2010, 911 children have had a finalized adoption since July 1, 2009. According to Hendrick these numbers suggest OKDHS could have another record year in adoptions for child welfare. Family Support workers should also be commended for their performance in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. The program saw its lowest error rate ever in Oklahoma at 3.7 percent for FY 2009. “As a former OKDHS employee who administered SNAP benefits, I understand the hard work put forth by OKDHS employees to achieve these numbers,” Blood said. “These accomplishments came at a time when case loads were increasing at significant rates and OKDHS employees should be very proud of their work.” In regard to higher caseloads, Director Hendrick pointed out there were 700 new persons added every business day to SNAP and Medicaid in 2009.

OPEA would also like to commend the generosity of not only OKDHS employees, but all state employees. “Despite RIFs, furloughs, and VOBOs there was a 9 percent increase in donations to the state charitable campaign in 2009,” said Blood. “This further illustrates the compassion state workers have for their community.

“As a former DHS employee and OPEA chapter leader, attending this board meeting was very informative,” said Blood. “DHS employees have a lot to be proud of in the way we have stepped up our efforts to serve the clients in spite of the budget situation.”

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