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Mega-merger of state agencies prompts creation of office to help navigate bureaucracy

Posted at 4:32 PM, Dec 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-03 20:16:52-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A mega-merger of two of Utah's largest state agencies is prompting government leaders to re-think how they get services to thousands of people every day.

As of July 2022, the Utah Department of Health and the Department of Human Services will merge into one agency. When it's completed, it will be the single largest government agency with more than 5,600 employees and $5.5 billion in expenditures.

A newly released transition plan said there will be no layoffs, though some employees are expected to be reassigned. From Medicaid and COVID-19 to behavioral health and aging services, there is no part of the state the combined Utah Department of Health & Human Services will not touch.

"It’s every community in the state. It has a statewide footprint," said Tracy Gruber, the current executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services who will lead the combined agency.

Governor Spencer Cox proposed merging the two agencies when he took office, believing that a single agency could efficiently provide services. The legislature passed a bill earlier this year to make it happen.

"I think the natural thought is it creates more bureaucracy," Gruber said in an interview with FOX 13. "But when you focus the system around the individuals accessing services, bringing programs together that are the same in two different departments in one department with focus on outcomes, in one place to get those resources, it decreases the administrative burden and creates efficiencies."

Some advocacy groups have expressed concern about such a massive undertaking — and the timing of it.

"We are still in the middle of a pandemic and so I think, when I see how we’re moving forward and I think about what lies ahead for the public health emergency hopefully or continuing our public health response, I do continue to have concerns," said Jessie Mandle, a senior policy analyst with the group Voices for Utah Children. "We’re asking a lot of our public health workforce."

Gruber said the merger has prompted them to revisit how services are provided, based on feedback from a number of community groups and members of the public across Utah.

"We’re building a system that is actually focused on how people actually live their lives. So we’re integrating behavioral and physical health in both the health care administrative office, integrated health care and also public health prevention and promotion," she said.

Gruber said combining physical and behavioral health will help the "whole person" instead of splintering services to different government agencies.

Because of the sometimes complex nature of human services and public health, the new Utah Department of Health & Human Services will also create a new office to help people navigate bureaucracy. The "Office of Customer Experience" will provide a "one stop shop" for people to get pointed to the proper paperwork or division to get services.

"The vision is that an individual can come into the department without knowing exactly which program, specific program they need, the name of the program, which division it’s in," Gruber told FOX 13. "They just come to this customer experience division and they’ll be able to do intake, assessment. We will have staff that will make sure they’re getting the right resources to navigate the complexity of state government."

Gruber said the approach of "no wrong door" ensures that Utahns get access to the services they need.

Mandle said she liked the concept of the Office of Customer Experience, if it can help Utahns with complicated systems like Medicaid enrollment (which is actually managed by another agency, the Utah Department of Workforce Services).

"How people get through the door, that initial entry, that point of enrollment is so important and can really shape people’s whole experience in a lot of these programs," she said.

There are more than 1,600 pages of legal code that have been reviewed and some areas still need to be addressed in the upcoming legislative session on the merger. You can read the state's transition plan here.