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Merger of Utah's Departments of Health, Human Services moves forward

Utah State Capitol
Posted at 10:54 PM, Aug 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-15 00:54:28-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed mega-merger between two of the state's largest government agencies is moving forward.

When it is completed by July 2022, the combined Utah Department of Health & Human Services will be the single largest state agency with over 5,000 employees and thousands more people it serves, overseeing billions in funding.

"This is a great opportunity to re-envision our public health and human services system," said Tracy Gruber, the executive director of Utah's Department of Human Services, who will oversee both agencies when the merger is complete.

It isn't the first time the two agencies have been combined. But it was revisited when Governor Spencer Cox took office. The legislature approved a bill earlier this year to begin the process.

The combined Utah Department of Health & Human Services will handle everything from Medicaid, substance abuse help and services for people with disabilities to medical cannabis access. As they have planned the merger, Gruber said the goal is to make access to services easier.

"We can design this department with the individuals at the center in making sure that services are delivered in an efficient way for the customer and also for our staff," she told FOX 13 in a recent interview. "The challenges for them, too, with a bureaucratic system are real. So when they can delivered the services effectively, the people can utilize them effectively."

As they've solicited public feedback, both the Utah Department of Health and the Department of Human Services have insisted that no services will be cut, there will be no job losses, but things in the agencies will be streamlined and some things combined. The two agencies have a website that updates where things are.

One group watching the merger has said there can be benefits to combining services.

"I think for people watching this, it’s kind of wonky policy," said Courtney Bullard, the education and collaborations director for the nonprofit Utah Health Policy Project. "But these kinds of decisions are what matters the most. How we administer the program, is how you access the program."

The Utah Health Policy Project, which is a nonpartisan health care advocacy organization, said at a time when Medicaid in the state has seen a surge in enrollment, streamlining consumer access to services can be beneficial.

"If anyone’s tried to enroll or apply to enroll in Medicaid, they know there can be some bumps along the way and there are issues with this process," Bullard said.

But UHPP questions why there is a rush to complete the process by July 2022, especially when there is a pandemic that is taking up so much of the Utah Department of Health's time and resources. In a recent interview with FOX 13, former state epidemiologist (and now executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department) Dr. Angela Dunn expressed concerns with public health being sidelined in the merger.

Gruber said she understood the concerns, but believed merging the agencies will lead to better outcomes for the people who use their services.

"Our expectation is people will see a difference. We’re designing it around the individuals who utilize the service with a focus on that customer experience and making it easier to access those services," she said.

The Utah State Legislature will get an update on the merger in December before the 2022 session to address any funding requests.