Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told the agency Thursday morning that he would step down in early January when Governor Kate Brown’s term ends.
Hours later, he said Steve Allen, the 66-year-old behavioral health director, was also leaving. The two are unrelated.
Patrick Allen, who is 59 and earns $253,308 a year, said he will leave Jan. 9 as Governor-elect Tina Kotek takes the reins. She indicated during the campaign that she would replace him, as did Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson, who ran as an unaffiliated candidate. Kotek also said Steve Allen will also go.
Patrick Allen announced his retirement, first reported by The Lund Report, to staff in an email obtained by the Capital Chronicle. “Honestly, I’m sad to leave this job behind,” Allen said. “We still have a lot ahead of us at the OHA. While we have demonstrated that we CAN deliver real health equity as we have by closing our COVID-19 vaccine gap, we still have a long way to go to allocate and reallocate power and resources in a way that recognizes, reconciles and corrects inequities and unfairness in our health systems.
Allen guided the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, occasionally facing fires, especially during the early days of the vaccine rollout. Under Allen, the agency set a goal of eliminating health inequities by 2030, but immunization rates among communities of color lagged in the first year and then caught up.
Allen indicated in his resignation letter to Brown that he was proud of his leadership during the pandemic, saying Oregon had “one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates” in the nation and had closed the equity gap with communities of color.
“In Oregon, more than eight in 10 (81%) people in the Latino, Latina, Latinx community are vaccinated, almost the rate of white Oregonians (82%). Today, 95% of blacks, African Americans and African immigrants in Oregon are vaccinated. No state in the country has shown a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate for the black community,” Allen wrote.
Allen praised Brown, who has come under fire during the pandemic for closing schools and requiring masks in public places indoors: “You made difficult choices that allowed us to save thousands of people in Oregon and get through the worst health crisis our country has seen in over a century. I appreciate the integrity of your leadership and all of the support you have given me and the OHA staff,” Allen wrote.
It oversees 4,770 employees and several 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 now nearly 95% of Oregonians have health insurance.
But the agency has failed to help people with mental health and addiction issues, critics say. They point out that 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, the measure Oregon drug decriminalization program that included a plan to scale up treatment. In national studies, the state has repeatedly had the highest rate or near the highest rate of people with mental health and addictions issues in national studies.
Lawmakers allocated the money for behavioral health in 2021, but the agency didn’t finish handing out most of the money until August, a year later than planned.
In his letter, Allen said that when he leaves, all money will be distributed or pledged: “By the end of 2022, the OHA will have spent or obligated nearly $1.2 billion of the $1.35 billion Oregon lawmakers have appropriated for the 2021-2023 biennium to transform behavioral health care.
Allen praised the director of behavioral health, who was 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 address mental health and addiction issues in Oregon while also being committed to achieving our strategic goal of eliminating health inequities in Oregon by 2030. Steve and his team achieved the creation of Behavioral Health Resource Networks and the distribution of nearly $300 million in funding promised by Ballot Measure 110.”
Allen acknowledged, however, that challenges remain when it comes to behavioral health.
“While we have 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 tapped Allen to take over the $30 billion health authority in August 2017 to replace former director Lynne Saxton, who was forced out after leading a campaign against a local Medicaid insurer. Prior to that, Allen led the Consumer and Business Services Department 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, the OHA was in crisis,” Allen said in his letter. “The agency’s relationships with stakeholders, legislators and the public had been severed and its credibility had been deeply 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 restoring public confidence in the OHA.
In particular, he said the agency works to build trust with communities of color. “We recognized that we could not fulfill our mission as so many communities across Oregon continued to experience unjust health disparities caused by historical and current impacts of racism, oppression and genocide,” said writes Allen.
Allen suffered a “serious” fall on January 23 and was hospitalized, according to a news release from the agency two days later. He was assessed for heart issues and returned home to Sherwood within three days. The health authority said he did not have COVID-19.
During his seven-week absence, his deputy, Kris Kautz, led 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, receiving the same salary plus pension benefits.
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