Report: Health commissioner to resign this week

Wednesday, September 17th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma's health commissioner plans to announce his resignation later this week, after a little more than two years on the job, a published report says.

Dr. Leslie Beitsch and Haskell Evans Jr., president of the state Board of Health, on Tuesday confirmed the health commissioner's departure, The Daily Oklahoman reported.

``I plan to submit my letter of resignation to the Board of Health on Thursday,'' Beitsch, 48, said.

He added that he regrets leaving, but had to ``balance personal and professional'' obligations in his life and for his family.

Over the summer, Beitsch's family moved from Edmond to Orlando, Fla. Beitsch said his wife and two children preferred life in Florida, where he was a top public health official before becoming head of the Oklahoma Health Department on June 1, 2001.

Beitsch is considering a public health position in Florida, but he said nothing has been finalized and a date for his departure hasn't been chosen.

The Oklahoma Board of Health, which oversees the Health Department, has scheduled an executive session during its Thursday meeting to ``discuss employment of the commissioner of health.''

Beitsch said his most important achievement was helping turn the Health Department into a ``credible organization'' after a scandal in 2000 tarnished the agency and its supervision of state nursing homes.

A former deputy health commissioner, Brent VanMeter, admitted that he accepted bribes from a nursing home owner. VanMeter also was accused of helping ``ghost'' employees stay on the Health Department payroll even though he knew they were doing little or no work.

``We've put the Health Department on the road to respectability,'' Beitsch said.

Beitsch also cited the Health Department's efforts to tighten restrictions on smoking in public places and restaurants in Oklahoma.

``That's a monumental accomplishment which will make a lasting difference on the health of the state,'' Beitsch said.

The smoking issue also put him at odds with some.

Mike Thornbrugh, government relations manager for QuikTrip convenience stores in Tulsa, said Beitsch had good ideas but his ``caustic personality'' hurt the agency.

``The health commissioner's relationship with the Legislature was horrible, at best. There were a lot of good programs and ideas that the Health Department tried to get passed, but the agency suffered because of the lack of leadership Mr. Beitsch has exhibited,'' said Thornbrugh, a former lawmaker.

Beitsch, a physician and an attorney, oversees a state agency with a $260 million annual budget and 2,300 employees.

He has had strong support from members of the Board of Health.

``He's done exactly what we've wanted him to do,'' said Haskell Evans Jr., president of the board. If we could give him a grade, it would be an 'A.' ''

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