Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: email@example.com
In 2005, Republican Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas took a bold step toward reorganizing his state bureaucracy. He merged the Department of Health with the Department of Human Services. Huckabee predicted that the consolidated Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, would "eliminate duplication and allow each department to capitalize on its strengths."
That doesn't seem to be what happened, though. "It's like a football play," says Jay Bradford, who chaired the health committee in the state House at the time and now runs the Mental Health Division. "When you look at the playbook, they're all touchdowns. This one just didn't happen to make it over the goal line." And so, by executive order of Democratic Governor Mike Beebe, Huckabee's successor, the experiment is ended as of July 1 and the agencies are going back to the separate status that prevailed before 2005. "Both agencies are stronger for the experience of having worked together," Beebe said in a prepared statement. "But...it makes the most sense to separate the two."
Not all the legislators who have studied the issue agree with the decision. "The merger's just now come into effect. I thought it should have a chance to work," says Republican Representative Daryl Pace. "We don't ever give anything a chance in Arkansas. I thought it would have made some headway."
Others, however, see the merger as having been structurally flawed from the beginning. The problem, in their view, was that DHHS was never really a merger of two equals--it was the subsuming of Health into the much larger Human Services. The "health" part became one of 12 divisions in the new mega-agency.
The Department of Health needed some changes. It had suffered through a long series of budget cuts, and was weak in finances, contracts and overall administration. But combining with Human Services never really solved those problems. And while the merger produced $3.5 million worth of savings on the health side, those appeared to come mostly from not filling administrative positions.
Even more important, says Paul Halvorson, who ran the Health Division within the combined agency, DHHS was never able to provide the focus on health issues that an independent department could provide. Morale among its staff plummeted, not only in Little Rock but also in most of the public health clinics it runs in each of the state's 75 counties. "Going through the campaign last year," says Bradford, "Governor Beebe heard across the state from local people--especially in rural counties--that they felt like they'd lost something when the merger occurred."
Halvorson still takes pains to describe the past two years as "very positive for both agencies," but he believes the merger wasn't a viable long-term option. "In this day when health is a major part of economic vitality and prosperity and an important factor in educational gains," he says, "we need to have a seat at the table at a cabinet level to focus on the health issues in our state.
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