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Utah officials plan agency merger to form massive department of health and human services

They say the consolidation will increase efficiency and lead to improved services.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Tracy Gruber (Utah Dept of Human Services), One Utah Summit at Southern Utah University (SUU) in Cedar City on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Utah officials have released their plan for combining the state’s health and human services departments to form a single agency with more than 5,600 employees and a $5.5 billion budget.

The proposal submitted to Gov. Spencer Cox and the Legislature on Wednesday explains how the two departments plan to launch the new Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) by the statutory deadline of July 1.

Health and human services leaders say the merger will increase efficiency and streamline services by unifying the two similar agencies under a common banner. Bringing together the departments will also create new opportunities to address public health in a more holistic way, they say.

“We need to invest in prevention strategies that are proactive and focused on the whole person, integrating a more complete approach with physical health and behavioral health, and providing improved direct services and care,” Tracy Gruber and Nate Checketts, executive directors of the state human services and health departments, wrote in an op-ed to The Salt Lake Tribune.

A number of programs in the two existing departments overlap, the report says, noting that the agencies both work on suicide prevention, substance use prevention, domestic violence and services for aging adults.

And it can be complicated for people seeking these services to navigate them when programs are siloed in different agencies, according to the report.

“Merging these functions will not only be an opportunity to eliminate redundancy, it will combine practice approaches and make services more robust,” the transition document states. “Each department’s approach has its own unique strengths; bringing them into alignment will help us be more effective.”

But pulling off the merger is no small feat, requiring years of effort, tweaks to hundreds of pages of Utah law, and millions of dollars in expenditures, according to the transition report unveiled Wednesday.

Some have expressed concern about contemplating major changes to the state’s health department as its employees are battling a pandemic.

However, Gruber and Checketts argued that COVID-19 has underscored the importance of the consolidation by highlighting “the need for a social services system that supports and strengthens all Utahns regardless of where they live in our great state.”

Gruber is poised to lead the combined agency, which will be the largest in state government.

The agencies have told staff there won’t be job cuts as part of the consolidation, but employees could see changes in their titles, worksite, chain of command and roles, the transition report states.

DHHS will be based primarily in the Cannon Health Building and the multiagency state office building in Salt Lake City, although the agency will encompass more than 160 buildings statewide. In the first year, none of the public-facing services will relocate, according to the report, but nearly 200 employees will move between the Cannon and multiagency office buildings.

The state Legislature has already set aside $1.5 million to pay for the agency merger and $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help cover the cost of technological upgrades, according to the report. Officials are hoping to strengthen system security and have met with Amazon Web Services team as they explore the creation of a data warehouse for the new combined department.

Before next year, the two agencies will also have to transfer more than $3.25 billion in federal grants to DHHS and figure out how thousands of legal agreements will move over to the new department.

State officials reported they had undertaken an extensive outreach effort before compiling their transition plan, holding virtual town halls and listening sessions across the state. More than 30 workgroups were formed to talk through the logistics, and staff sifted through 326 comments and questions submitted online and through the town halls.

The report fulfills a requirement of legislation passed earlier this year, setting the merger into motion. On Thursday at 3 p.m., officials will host a virtual question-and-answer meeting about the transition report.

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