OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, on Monday hosted an interim study on the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act (CHEPA), which was invoked by the governor in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study was held before the House Government Efficiency Committee.
“I am very pleased to have had so many participants in this Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act interim study,” West said. “There were some very tough discussions, yet everyone was very professional. As legislators, we need to know what worked during this COVID-19 pandemic and especially what did not work so that we can address those shortcomings in the future for the citizens of Oklahoma.”
CHEPA was first approved by the Legislature and signed into law by then Gov. Brad Henry in 2003, but such an emergency had never before been declared. The act granted the governor’s office greater authority to manage the public health crisis, including using state resources and funds at his discretion, provided the Legislature was notified prior to the waiving of regulations or other action.
West said the purpose of his study was to determine if the act worked as intended or if it should be modified to better protect the public and taxpayer resources in the future.
Presenters at Monday’s study included some of the state's top health officials from the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), including Interim Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye who gave a timeline of the state’s response to the pandemic.
Frye explained how the department had to work around Oklahoma's Health Information and Patient Protection Act (HIPAA) laws, which he said are more restrictive than at the federal level. He said despite the restrictions the agency was able to share critical data with the local emergency entities that needed it and transparently share a tremendous amount of information with the public via the agency’s dashboard. He said Oklahoma shares more information than any other state, in his opinion.
OSDH Deputy General Counsel Nicole Nash suggested one change she would like to see made to the CHEPA. She said currently the agency interviews subjects of public health investigations to help them identify the source and spread of diseases but the law does not require patients or facilities to provide information back to OSDH. She would like to see this addressed.
Kary Cox, director at Washington County Emergency Management, gave a perspective from a local emergency manager level. He said the pandemic is the worst public health crisis he’s witnessed and said mismanagement and poor communication between state agencies and local managers made it worse in the beginning. Cox said plans and policies seemed to change weekly and were learned through media releases instead of coming directly from the governor’s office or the state agencies. This was frustrating at best, he said.
Cox also said obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) from the state was very difficult. Better planning and standardizing management systems and tools between all affected entities would make any future crisis much easier to handle, he said.
He also said the state must invite all stakeholders to a part of the process, including county, city and tribal officials.
West said this was just the sort of discussion and feedback he was hoping for from his interim study. It will help guide him as he considers legislative changes to the current CHEPA.
Kevin West serves District 54 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, which includes part of Moore in Cleveland and Oklahoma counties.