Oregon Health Authority director, behavioral health director are stepping down

The Oregon Health Authority’s director, Patrick Allen, told the agency on Thursday morning that he will step down in early January, when Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends.

Hours later, he said that Steve Allen, the behavioral health director is also leaving. The two are not related.

Patrick Allen, who’s 59 and earns $253,308 a year, said he will leave Jan. 9 as Gov.-elect Tina Kotek takes the reins. She indicated during the campaign that she would replace him as had Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson, who ran as an unaffiliated candidate. Kotek also said Steve Allen would go as well. 

Patrick Allen announced his retirement, first reported by The Lund Report, to staff in an email that was obtained by the Capital Chronicle. “Honestly, I am sad to be leaving this work behind,” Allen said. “We have much ahead of us still at OHA. While we have demonstrated that we CAN deliver real health equity as we did in closing our COVID-19 vaccine gap, we have a long way to go to allocate and reallocate power and resources in a way that recognizes, reconciles, and rectifies the injustices and unfairness in our health systems.”

Allen shepherded the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, at times facing fire, particularly during the early days of the vaccine rollout. Under Allen, the agency has set a goal of eliminating health inequities by 2030 but vaccination rates among communities of color lagged the first year, later catching 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 color.

“In Oregon, more than eight in 10 people (81%) in the Latino, Latina, Latinx community are vaccinated, nearly the rate of white Oregonians (82%). Today, 95% percent of Blacks, African Americans and African immigrants in Oregon are vaccinated. No  state in the nation has posted a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate for the Black  community,” Allen wrote. 

Allen praised Brown, who came under fire during the pandemic for closing schools and requiring masks in public places indoors: “You have made hard choices that enabled us to save thousands of people in  Oregon and navigate the worst health crisis our nation has faced in more than a century. I  appreciate the integrity of your leadership and all the support you’ve given me and the staff at OHA,” Allen wrote.

He oversees 4,770 employees and multiple programs, including Medicaid, which covers one in three Oregonians through the Oregon Health Plan.

Allen noted that Medicaid coverage had expanded under his leadership and that now nearly 95% of Oregonians have health insurance.

But the agency has failed to help people with mental health and addiction problems, critics say. They point out it has been slow to distribute more than $1 billion to create behavioral health programs and new facilities, as well as addiction treatment networks as part of the rollout of Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure that included a plan to step up treatment. In national studies, the state has repeatedly had the highest or close to the highest rate of people with mental health and addiction problems in national studies.

Lawmakers allocated the money toward behavioral health in 2021 but the agency only finished distributing the biggest share of the money this August, a year later than scheduled.

In his letter, Allen said by the time he leaves, all of the money will be distributed or promised: “By the end of 2022, OHA will have spent or obligated nearly $1.2 billion of the $1.35 billion Oregon lawmakers  appropriated for the 2021-2023 biennium to transform the behavioral health care.” 

Allen praised the behavioral health director, who was hired in 2019, in an internal email.

“Over the past nearly four years, he has built an incredibly strong team, filled with talented, dedicated, passionate people who are working tirelessly every day to fix mental health and addictions treatment in Oregon while being equally committed to delivering our strategic goal of eliminating health inequities in Oregon by 2030. Steve and his team have delivered on the creation of Behavioral Health Resource Networks and distribution of nearly $300 million in funding promised by Ballot Measure 110.”

Allen acknowledged, however, that challenges remain in behavioral health.

“While we have made great strides to improve our behavioral health system, we have a long way to go and the pandemic has made that path longer and much more difficult,” Allen said in his email.

Brown tapped Allen to take over the $30 billion health authority in August 2017 to replace former director Lynne Saxton, who was pushed out after she waged a campaign against a local Medicaid insurer. Before 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 lead the agency in September 2017, OHA was in crisis,” Allen said in his letter.  “The agency’s relationships with stakeholders, legislators and the public had been ruptured  and its credibility had been profoundly eroded. I brought the values that have guided me throughout my career – transparency,  accountability and the wise use of public resources – to the task of rebuilding public trust in  OHA.”

In particular, he said the agency has been working on building trust with communities of color. “We recognized that we could not fulfill our mission while so many communities throughout Oregon continued to experience unfair health disparities caused by historic and present impacts of racism, oppression and genocide,” Allen wrote.

Allen had a “serious” fall on Jan. 23 and was hospitalized, according to a news release from the agency two days later. He was evaluated for heart issues and returned to his home in Sherwood within three days. The health authority said he did not have COVID-19.

During his seven-week absence, his deputy, Kris Kautz, ran the agency, including during the short legislative session. Allen officially retired in May, according to a report by The Lund Report, but returned to work, collecting the same salary plus retirement benefits.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.