Champion of public health.

That's the label given to the work Rep. Doug Cox during his time in the Oklahoma legislature.

As both a state representative and physician, since he was first elected in 2004, Cox often found himself in a unique role, serving as a patient advocate as well as a lawmaker.

For those efforts, members of the Oklahoma Turning Point organization, a conglomeration of people interested in improving health care within the state, awarded Cox with the Public Health Innovator Award. 

Cox jokes that the award signifies how he often thought outside the box, when it came to sponsoring health care legislation. 

"This is one of the most, if not the most, prestigious healthcare related honors in the state," Cox said. "This is humbling."

For Dr. Terry Cline, Secretary of Health and Human Services and Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) Commissioner, giving Cox the award was a natural choice. 

"He has been the singular champion of a multitude of health issues," Cline said. "[He had] a very rare combination of policy and legislative decision making, while understanding the impact of the legislation not only on that level, but also the level of the people."

Cline said Cox's role as both a legislator and physician made him a key leader in the legislature, because he was often able to articulate needs for the funding of key agencies and legislation. 

"He has always focused on keeping the health of people in this state the number one priority," Cline said. "At times, he went against the tide, pushing legislation that was not always popular among his peers. 

"When the focus was important for the health of people, he was willing to go against the party and his professional colleagues, if it was for the good of the people. 

"That is my definition of a real legislative champion."

Cline said Cox's departure from the legislature, due to term limits, will leave "a void in the leadership" when it comes to health care issues. 

"He is committed and dedicated as a public servant," Cline said. "A servant leader, that is exactly what he is. He's always stayed focused, and served people."

Successes, disappointments

Prior to his arrival in Oklahoma City, Cox said there had not been a strong advocate, or voice, for health care issues in the state legislature for at least 20 years. 

Cox said since his election, Sen. Ervin Yen (R-Oklahoma) and Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) have joined him. Cox and Yen have worked together on numerous health-related bills. 

Cox said being a physician gave him a unique opportunity, or world view, when it came to analyzing legislation.

He would not only look at how tax monies would be spent, but also how the final outcome would impact patients.  

"Sometimes it would create an inner conflict," Cox said. "Because what I wanted to provide patients, we could not afford it in the state.

"I always made the choice for the patient, realizing that the reality of the budget would overrule me."

Cox said a few of his successes in the legislature included increasing the age limit for purchasing cigarettes and finding ways to address teen pregnancy.

He's also proud of reforms created within Medicare early in his legislative career, while working with then-speaker of the house Kris Steele. 

"We increased the access to care and increased the number of physicians available in Oklahoma for that population," Cox said, adding that the reforms helped increase everything from pediatric dentistry options, to strengthening rural health care options. 

He also went against public opinion - including many physicians - to create legislation requiring doctors to track prescription drugs used by patients.

The registry, created in partnership with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and the Governor's office, is designed to help stop patients from "doctor shopping" for certain prescriptions.

Cox said while the final legislation left people on both sides of the issue unhappy, it was a strong compromise. The registry requires physicians to check a patient for drugs commonly abused every six months. 

Two years later, Cox said, doctors are beginning to see a decrease in the number of prescription drug overdose deaths. 

"Our goal isn't to catch them [the patients] and throw them into jail," Cox said. "We want to discover people who are addicted and help get them treatment for their problem."

Cox said one of his biggest disappointments stems from an inability to pass a cigarette tax increase.

"We know that tobacco related illnesses is the number one cause of preventable death in the state," Cox said. "We also know that the price of cigarettes is the number one deterrent for an underage person from starting to smoke."

He's also disappointed that many of the medicare reforms, including a measure which increased what a provider receives for treating patients within the program, are beginning to be reduced because of the state's budget crisis.

"We've had to roll [the rates] back three times due to the budget shortfall," Cox said. "We've had [numerous physicians] drop from the program.

"It's disappointing to see what we worked so hard to do, become unraveled, but that's the reality of the budget."

He is also disappointed that a bill, which would have increased the compulsory age a student could drop out of high school from 16 to 18, failed to gain support during the last session.

"Education is the key to addressing almost all the state's problems," Cox said, adding that a person's education level is often directly tied to a person's health. 

Looking to the future

Cox and his wife, Drenda, reside in a home outside of Grove. 

He continues to practice as an emergency room physician at INTEGRIS Grove Hospital, but is "slowing down" and only pulling a few shifts per month.

He's also working 20 hours a week with Dr. Robert Hopper at the Bearskin Medical Clinic, part of the Wyandotte Nation's Bearskin Healthcare and Wellness Center in Wyandotte.

Slowing down gives Cox a chance to be a grandpa to his grandchildren, and attend his grandson's varsity football games. 

Cox's time of public service may not be over. This month he plans to run for a seat on the REC board of directors.