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Plans in the works to merge Utah state agencies

Utah State Capitol fall
Posted at 4:03 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 19:26:22-05

SALT LAKE CITY  — Plans are under way to merge Utah's Department of Health with the Department of Human Services, and Utah's Department of Environmental Quality with Utah's Department of Natural Resources, FOX 13 has learned.

Emails provided to FOX 13 on Friday outlined the plans to employees of all the agencies.

"The UDOH will likely look different in the future. Many of our programs, and the programs of other agencies, will likely be combined under the banner of one newly created Health and Human Services agency. Other programs will likely move to other agencies where similar services are already offered," Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders said in the email.

FOX 13 first reported on plans to merge some government agencies under Governor Spencer Cox's administration in December. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, was planning a bill to make some of it happen. He told FOX 13 it could lead to efficencies in state government.

"We’ve built these government silos when it comes to funding and work and there’s nothing being shared between the silos," he said Friday. "And the thought is, let’s tear those silos down and combine them. Combine our resources, combine our money, combine the knowledge that we have, and go forward and offer a better service to the citizens of Utah."

But some lawmakers and medical groups believe the timing is bad. Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, said she's fine with reviewing a merger and looking for ways to save taxpayers money but not while Utah is in the midst of COVID-19.

"I’m concerned this is moving too quickly especially in the worst pandemic in a century," she told FOX 13. "I’m really concerned that distracting and diverting attention from these two huge agencies, from making sure that we’re getting vaccines in arms and stemming the spread of this virus and the economic fallout of COVID."

The Utah Academy of Family Physicians said it opposed the move right now.

"While we are full supportive of finding cost savings and the potential for efficiencies in government administration, we believe that such a significant shift requires sufficient time for study and full and transparent engagement with stakeholders. During this time of unprecedented global pandemic, we rely on the current UDOH’s responsibility for an efficient and cohesive administration of COVID response, testing, and vaccine administration. This is not the time to make such a significant and potential far-reaching shift in administration," the group said.

The plan has the support of Gov. Cox. His senior advisor said there are synergies that may be created.

"We believe it will also create a better customer experience for the end user through better case management and coordination by having all the social services pieces under one roof," Justin Harding said in a statement to FOX 13. "Merging the two agencies will not impact our COVID-19 response. The critical functions and personnel of the two agencies are retained. Public health will continue to be a robust piece of any agency merger."

Harding said next week stakeholders would meet to discuss how to proceed.

None of the agencies are proposing a reduction in force.

"The Governor is not proposing to reduce the number of state employees as part of these changes. If the mergers are approved by the legislature, and after studying combined agency functions, workforce reductions would be accomplished through retirements and regular turnover," Utah Department of Human Services Executive Director Tracy Gruber wrote in an email to her employees.

Other services, like Medicaid, might move over to Utah's Department of Workforce Services. Right now, UDOH and DWS share those services.

Both agencies, with the newly-appointed cabinet members, expressed optimism at the idea.

"We hope you will embrace these changes - as they represent an opportunity to better serve those who rely on us. We believe there are exciting opportunities to better integrate services such as mental and physical health, and delivery of critical services to children, older adults, and people with disabilities which will ultimately reduce the confusion residents often experience when trying to access services," wrote Saunders.

This is not the first time the agencies have merged. Utah previously had a Department of Health & Human Services several administrations ago before they were broken apart.

Late Friday, FOX 13 confirmed Utah's Department of Natural Resources was also in discussions about merging with the state's environmental and public lands agencies.

"We have been informed this bill will not change the functions of our agencies. Each department, division and office potentially involved in this merger run important programs and maintain critical responsibilities," Utah DNR Director Brian Steed said in an email to his staff. "If this bill passes, we expect operations to continue uninterrupted with no significant impact on day-to-day activities or reduction to our workforce. The most significant change will be that it allows for better day-to-day collaboration among leadership."