Oklahoma lawmakers plan to invest more money in the state’s public health lab, which could bring the total investment to around $39 million.
The lab had been in disrepair for decades and at one point even risked losing its accreditation. In late 2020, Governor Kevin Stitt announced that his administration would build a replacement. However, instead of building near his existing facility in the Oklahoma City Biomedical District, he moved the lab to Stillwater. There have been several issues since, such as a federal investigation that found the lab mishandled COVID samples.
“There are some things that … we are not 100% satisfied with,” Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Paul Rosino said during a Senate hearing last week to discuss funding for the laboratory. “Some of the services we get that would normally be done in our health lab, we have to send to other places.”
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Department of Health said outsourced testing requires a higher level of biosafety clearance.
Health labs are assigned different levels of biosafety, depending on the health risk the lab can contain with its equipment and protocols. There are four levels. The first level does not require much: standard personal protective equipment, a sink for washing hands. These are allowed to work with microbes that are not very dangerous. Right now, Oklahoma’s health lab is at level 2.
“Some of these tests also require a higher level of biosafety precautions, including Level 3 precautions,” spokeswoman Erika Rankin wrote. “As an example, this group would include the identification of bioterrorism agents. One test that is certainly more common and is the most common test we currently outsource is for TB. »
They also outsource uncommon tests such as those for Haemophilus bacterial infection, group B streptococcus and West Nile virus.
On Wednesday, the House passed Senate Bill 1131. It’s basically a technical detail. In 2017, the legislature authorized the state health department to take out $58 million in bonds to pay for a new public health lab. Under the Stitt administration, the agency ended up using state and federal funds instead, and officials told the Legislature that the bonds were no longer needed. SB 1131 revokes authorization for these bonds.
Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, carried the bill. After the Stitt administration announced the move to Stillwater, Martinez was one of the most vocal critics. He worried about moving the lab during the pandemic, as well as moving it away from the biomedical district, which is also home to the OU Health campus, the Oklahoma Blood Institute and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. He issued a press release at the time lambasting the decision and saying he would seek a way to introduce legislation to block the move.
“I shared a lot of concerns, and still do, about the health lab in Stillwater,” he said at Wednesday’s hearing.
He and Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, revisited some of the issues that arose with the lab. This included an earlier controversy over outsourcing. There were issues with critical blood screenings performed for all newborns in the state, and the lab began contracting them out after the move, when concerns about the lab’s new protocols were raised. The privatization of the laboratory also raises concerns.
“There are issues that I would like to investigate with you and resolve, to make this more accountable to the Oklahoma public, and make sure the citizens get the tests and all the wonderful things they deserve from the lab. state health,” Martinez told Fugate during the hearing.
In late 2020, the agency announced it was bringing in a private contractor to run the lab. The management company was Prairie One Solutions, a subsidiary of the Oklahoma State University Research Foundation created a few weeks before the announcement. Multiple investigations of the lab, both by federal regulators and local media, have revealed significant issues with the operation of the lab, including a severe labor shortage. The sudden move to Stillwater contributed to shortages when long-serving employees chose not to move.
The Department of Health signed a contract with Prairie One Solutions in 2020 for one year with four automatic renewals for four years thereafter, but in January the agency said it had opted not to renew. Overall, the state paid the company $2.5 million for its services, according to the nonprofit outlet The Frontier.