Health Board to meet Thursday afternoon

Thursday, July 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The Oklahoma Board of Health may take action Thursday on recommendations to terminate or discipline more employees of the embattled Department of Health.

Members of the board, which oversees the agency, vowed Wednesday to do away with any signs of patronage in the department's hiring practices, which have come under scrutiny since a federal investigation surfaced in May.

The scandal broke May 2 when federal agents arrested former deputy commissioner Brent VanMeter, who has since been fired from the agency and indicted on a federal bribery count. Since then, reports of "ghost employees," or workers who apparently drew salaries from the agency but did little or no work, have dogged the department.

Some of the so-called "ghost employees" have connections to or are former state legislators. "The Legislature has no business running the health department," said Dr. Jay Gregory, of Muskogee, who will chair the board's meeting Thursday afternoon. "Legislators calling up the department and their relatives getting jobs -- it's going to stop. The reasons for hiring a health department employee are qualifications and need. That's all."

On the board's agenda is an executive session followed by "discussion and possible action ... with regard to the ongoing investigation." To date, 22 department employees have been fired or have resigned since allegations of corruption involving the department and its regulation of Oklahoma nursing homes surfaced in early May.

Jerry Regier, the department's acting director, already has fired the nephew of a current lawmaker, the son of a former legislator and a former lawmaker.

"Patronage or the perception of patronage have a negative effect on any state agency that is trying to achieve its mission of helping the people of Oklahoma," said health board member Gordon Deckert of Oklahoma City.

A nationwide search is being conducted to hire a new commissioner and fill a new deputy commissioner post created by the health board.