Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen told the agency Thursday morning that he will step down in early January when Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends.
Hours later, he said Steve Allen, the 66-year-old director of behavioral health, is also leaving. The two are not related.
Patrick Allen, who is 59 and earns $253,308 a year, said he will leave office Jan. 9 as Gov.-elect Tina Kotek takes over the reins. She indicated during the campaign that she would replace him, as did Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson, who was running as an independent candidate. Kotek also said that Steve Allen would also go.
Patrick Allen announced his retirement, first reported by The Lund Report, to staff in an email obtained from the Capital Chronicle. “Honestly, I’m sad to leave this work behind,” Allen said. “We still have a long way to go at OHA. While we have shown that we CAN create true health equity, as we did in closing our COVID-19 vaccine gap, we still have a long way to go to allocate and reallocate power and resources in ways that address injustices recognized, reconciled, and remedied and injustice in our healthcare systems.”
Allen led the state through the COVID-19 pandemic and has faced intermittent fires, particularly in the early days of the vaccine’s rollout. Under Allen, the agency set a goal of eliminating health inequalities by 2030, but vaccination rates among communities of color lagged in the first year and later caught up.
Allen indicated in his resignation letter to Brown that he was proud of his leadership during the pandemic, saying Oregon has “one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates” in the country and had closed the equity gap with communities of colour.
“In Oregon, more than eight in 10 people (81%) are in the Latino, Latina, Latinx community vaccinated, nearly the rate of white Oregonians (82%). Today, 95% of Black, African American and African immigrants in Oregon are vaccinated. No state in the nation has reported a higher COVID-19 immunization rate for the black community,” Allen wrote.
Allen praised Brown, who has come under fire during the pandemic for closing schools and demanding masks in indoor public places: “You made tough decisions that have allowed us to save thousands of people in Oregon and navigate the worst public health crisis our nation has faced in more than a century. I appreciate the integrity of your leadership and all the support you have given me and the staff at OHA,” Allen wrote.
He oversees 4,770 employees and several programs including Medicaid, which covers one in three Oregon residents through the Oregon Health Plan.
Allen noted that under his leadership, Medicaid coverage has expanded and that nearly 95% of Oregon residents now have health insurance.
But the agency has failed to help people with mental health and addiction problems, critics say. They point out that the distribution of more than $1 billion to create behavioral health programs and new facilities and addiction treatment networks as part of the implementation of Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure, which included a plan to step up treatment , had happened only slowly. In nationwide studies, the federal state repeatedly has the highest or almost the highest rate of people with mental health and addiction problems in nationwide studies.
Lawmakers allocated the money for behavioral health in 2021, but the agency didn’t finish distributing most of the money until August of this year, a year later than planned.
In his letter, Allen said that until he leaves, all money will be distributed or promised: “By the end of 2022, OHA will have spent or committed nearly $1.2 billion of the $1.35 billion the Oregon Legislature has allocated for the 2021-2023 biennium to transform behavioral healthcare.”
Allen praised the behavioral health director hired in 2019 in an internal email.
“Over the past nearly four years, he has built an incredibly strong team of talented, dedicated, and passionate people who work tirelessly every day to improve mental health and addiction treatment in Oregon while equally caring about it committed to meeting our strategic goal of eliminating health inequalities in Oregon by 2030. Steve and his team have implemented the creation of Behavioral Health Resource Networks and the distribution of nearly $300 million in funding promised by Ballot Measure 110 .”
However, Allen acknowledged that there remain challenges in behavioral health.
“While we’ve made great strides in improving our behavioral health system, we still have a long way to go, and the pandemic has made that road longer and much more difficult,” Allen said in his email.
Brown hired Allen to take over the $30 billion health agency in August 2017 to replace former director Lynne Saxton, who was forced out after campaigning against a local Medicaid insurer. Prior to that, Allen led the Department of Consumer and Business Services for six years. Allen said the department was a mess when he took over.
“When you asked me to head the agency in September 2017, OHA was in crisis,” Allen said in his letter. “The agency’s relationships with stakeholders, legislators and the public were fractured and its credibility was deeply eroded. I have brought the values that have guided me throughout my career – transparency, accountability and the wise use of public resources – to the task of restoring public trust in OHA.”
Specifically, he said the agency has been working to build trust with communities of color. “We realized that we could not fulfill our mission while so many communities across Oregon continued to experience unfair health disparities caused by historical and contemporary impacts of racism, oppression and genocide,” Allen wrote.
Allen had a “bad” fall on Jan. 23 and was hospitalized two days later, according to an agency press release. He was checked for heart problems and returned to his home in Sherwood within three days. Health officials said he did not have COVID-19.
During his seven-week absence, his deputy, Kris Kautz, ran the agency, including during the short term in office. According to a report by The Lund Report, Allen officially retired in May but returned to work and received the same salary plus pension.
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