SALT LAKE CITY — Beneath the statue of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon on Capitol Hill, state officials celebrated the merger of Utah's Department of Health with the Department of Human Services.
Friday was the 165th birthday of Dr. Cannon, the first woman elected to a state legislature and the founder of what later became the Utah Department of Health. It was also the first birthday of the new Utah Department of Health & Human Services.
The mega-merger creates the single largest government agency in Utah.
"We have almost 6,000 employees throughout the entire Department of Health & Human Services," said Tracy Gruber, the agency's executive director. "Our budget is about $7 billion. The vast majority of that is federal funding for the Medicaid program."
The Cox administration and the Utah State Legislature backed the merger, believing that combining the two departments would create some efficiencies for the people they serve and for taxpayers.
"Almost 60% of those receiving services in Human Services were also receiving services in Health," said Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the state health officer. "And so bringing that together, we really can focus on people we serve."
The COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Hofmann said, really highlighted how intertwined these services are. As the state prepared to merge the agencies, it also showed how much overlap they have. With the merger, no employees will lose their jobs (but some overlapping jobs may be eliminated as some retire or leave).
The reach of the new Utah Department of Health & Human Services will touch many facets of Utahns' lives, from COVID-19 to cannabis, disability services, mental health, substance abuse and aging services. Advocacy groups have been largely supportive of the merger.
"The merger’s a good thing," said Wendy Jo McMillen with Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. "I think public health and human services should be merged together."
Jessie Mandle, the deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, said her group had concerns about combining the agencies in the COVID-19 pandemic. But she praised the agencies for listening to public comment and being transparent about their plans.
"We’ve seen how these agencies have worked together and come together," she told FOX 13 News.
But how does a mega-merger avoid creating even more bureaucracy?
"That's the challenge, right?" said Gruber. "That's what we want to avoid. So when we started designing this with input from stakeholders, including our employees, the focus was on designing a department centered around the individuals that we serve. And making sure we know how they are navigating the system to avoid that massive bureaucracy that causes so many challenges for people to get access to the services they need."
To help people navigate the complex maze of paperwork and processes of health care and human services, Gruber said that within the next year they will launch something new for state government: an office specifically dedicated to helping people make their way through the system.
The Office of Customer Experience will be a one-stop shop for people to get help or get answers as they try to get services through the agency.
"They are complex," Gruber acknowledged. "What we want to make sure is to support individuals to navigate that complexity and make the connections that need to be made in order for them to get resources they qualify for."