Utah health, human services agencies to merge next year

The move has caused consternation among some Utahns concerned that public health could lose stature if it doesn’t have its own agency

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gov. Spencer Cox, shown in this March 11, 2021, file photo, signed legislation on Tuesday that orders the merger of the Utah departments of health and human services, to be completed by July 1, 2022. Some have questioned the wisdom of the change during a pandemic.

Two major state agencies — the departments of health and human services — will become one next year under a bill Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law on Tuesday.

Proponents say the merger, which will be completed by July 1, 2022, will help the state more effectively manage and provide health and human services programs. The departments have similar focus areas, and combining them into one agency could better integrate behavioral and physical health, streamline communication and practices and reduce provider administrative time.

“This is an opportunity for us, as a government, to think differently about how we serve the public,” Cox said in a statement on Tuesday. “Bringing these agencies together will allow for improvements in coordination and, ultimately, a better delivery of services and outcomes.”

Cox’s signature sets in motion the process for combining the agencies, with the first benchmark — a plan for implementation — due to the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1.

That written plan will list all the tasks that need to be accomplished as part of the merger, present a proposed organizational structure, include a plan for using office space and detail any worksite or service site changes that should happen during the consolidation.

Before the department is fully operational, lawmakers will have one more opportunity during their next legislative session to provide additional direction about how the newly formed Department of Health and Human Services will operate.

While proponents have extolled the benefits of the consolidation, the move has caused consternation among some Utahns concerned that public health could lose stature if it doesn’t have its own agency and who worry about the timing of making such a big shift during a pandemic.

Richard Saunders, executive director of the state health department, has said that the public health will “retain a proper, balanced voice in all this.”

The state also addressed those concerns on the “Frequently Asked Questions” segment of a new webpage devoted to the shift.

“We recognize that it will be a heavy lift for leadership and staff during the pandemic,” it said, “but are confident it is achievable with state support, resources and the right plan in place, including input from stakeholders and service recipients.”

Under HB365, which was sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the heads of both the health department and human services agency will be in charge of overseeing the transition process. The state has also set aside funds for any expenses that crop up during the merger.

No job cuts are anticipated as a result of the consolidation.

As it braces for the changes, the Utah Department of Human Services announced Tuesday that it was appointing two new deputy directors: Nate Checketts, currently the Utah Medicaid Director at the Utah Department of Health, and David Litvack, currently a senior policy adviser in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office.

The new deputy directors will assume their roles on April 5, bringing “invaluable partnerships and knowledge as we work to deliver on the current needs of Utah’s children, families and adults, while also envisioning improvements for those who will be served by a new Department of Health and Human Services,” Department of Human Services Executive Director Tracy Gruber said in a news release.

The state says it will continue to engage the public as the merger moves forward and is encouraging anyone with questions or concerns about the consolidation to submit input online, through a Google Form that can be found at sites.google.com/utah.gov/hhsplan/home.

Other bills the governor signed on Tuesday include:

  • HB72, which would require new cellphones and tablets sold in Utah to come with activated pornography filters. The bill, which passed over concerns from some lawmakers about its constitutionality, wouldn’t take effect until five other states pass a similar law.

  • HB94, which creates guidelines and regulations for “microkitchen” enterprises, or for people who sell food cooked in their home kitchens. Home-based culinary entrepreneurs will be able under the bill to obtain a permit from their local health department and receive inspections for food safety before selling their goods to the public.

  • HB136, which tightens the rules for ballot initiatives and is expected to make it harder to get a voter initiative on the ballot.

  • SB137, which gives the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control an additional $4.3 million to raise salaries for its retail clerks, warehouse workers, store managers and assistant managers. The bill comes after a recent agency review showed turnover rates at the DABC exceeded 140% for the agency’s part-time workforce, and 109% for all employees — the worst among all state agencies.