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Hathi begins work as head of Oregon Health Authority

Dr. Sejal Hathi stressed her commitment to the health authority’s goals. If confirmed by the Senate, she’ll be the agency’s first permanent director in more than a year.
New Oregon Health Authority interim director Sejal Hathi released a video address to agency employees on her first day, Jan. 16, 2024. | SCREENSHOT FROM OHA VIDEO
January 18, 2024

The Oregon Health Authority has new leadership as Dr. Sejal Hathi on Tuesday started as interim director of the largest state agency

Hathi most recently served as New Jersey's deputy health commissioner and previously worked as a Biden White House public health policy advisor. Gov. Tina Kotek announced the appointment in November. Hathi takes over for Dave Baden, the health authority’s financial chief who served as interim director since March 2023. She goes to the Oregon Senate for confirmation in February. 

“Now, I know the road won’t be easy,” she said in a video message to staff. “But I'm here because I’ve seen and believe in our ability to do hard things: to eliminate health inequities and to transform our behavioral health system to fulfill the promise of our agency’s founding mission and make real those care and coverage innovations that first set OHA apart.”

As head of the health authority, Hathi will oversee a $35.7 billion two-year budget and roughly 4,800 employees. The agency is responsible for public health programs, the Oregon State Hospital and the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan, which provides insurance to 1.5 million low-income Oregonians. 

Hathi’s appointment comes as state officials are scrambling to address Oregon’s persistent substance use and behavioral health crisis even as lawmakers and others call for changes to the state’s controversial drug decriminalization law. 

The agency is in the midst of a public health modernization effort in addition to redetermining eligibility for the Oregon Health Plan after a pandemic-induced pause. The health authority is also establishing programs to spend Medicaid funds on housing, nutrition and health impacts of climate change.  

In an internal message sent to health authority staff Tuesday, Hathi wrote that Oregon “is at a critical inflection point” as it faces post-pandemic health care challenges, including “a secondary behavioral health pandemic, reverse deep-seated institutional distrust” in addition to “a generational reckoning on race and equity.”

“I came to Oregon to join you in this journey,” she wrote. “For decades, this agency has set the vanguard of progressive policy to tackle some of the most intractable health challenges of our time. You’ve shown your heart and proven your mettle.”

In her message, Hathi praised Oregon for its innovative Medicaid expansion, and its response to the pandemic, particularly its efforts to vaccinate adults in communities of color. She said she was intent on listening to staff and learning about their work. Hathi wrote that she grew up in northern California and that she and her husband  “are looking forward to laying down roots here in the Willamette Valley.”

The daughter of immigrants, Hathi launched two nonprofits and earned degrees from Stanford and Yale. Hathi is the first physician to serve as health authority director since Bruce Goldberg, who helped found the agency in 2009. 

After Kotek won her race for governor in 2022, then-health authority Director Patrick Allen announced he would step down in January. Kotek named James Schroeder, CEO of Medicaid insurer Health Share of Oregon, as interim director of the health authority. 

But by March 2023, Schroeder unexpectedly announced he was stepping down before being confirmed by the Oregon Senate, citing his desire to focus on his family. 

Text messages later obtained by The Lund Report show that Schroeder described the health authority as a “toxic place” that’s resistant to change. 

In an interview with The Lund Report in November, Hathi didn’t comment on her predecessor. She said she was committed to advancing Kotek’s priorities throughout her current term and “hopefully another term that follows.”