Healthcare Leaders Praise Choice of Allen to Command Troubled OHA

Pat Allen, the leader of the Department of Consumer & Business Services, was called Wednesday to put out fires at the Oregon Health Authority after Lynne Saxton resigned amid a communications scandal.

Gov. Kate Brown turned to a familiar face on Wednesday to become interim director of the Oregon Health Authority, Pat Allen, the well-respected director of the Department of Consumer & Business Services, which regulates health insurance among other responsibilities.

Allen holds a place in Oregon public service similar to another respected bureaucrat, Clyde Saiki, whom Brown appointed to take the helm of the Department of Human Services two years ago after a scandal in the Child Welfare Division, and Saiki has worked to restore confidence in that state agency.

Now Allen has been called to perform a similarly difficult task, trying to steer a large, unwieldy bureaucracy that has seen two directors forced out by scandals in the past three years.

An independent report cast blame on Dr. Bruce Goldberg for his role in the failure of the Cover Oregon health insurance exchange, and now Lynne Saxton has resigned after Portland Tribune reporter Nick Budnick revealed that her communications team concocted a half-baked scheme to manipulate public opinion surrounding its years-long courtroom fight with FamilyCare Health, the second-largest provider of Medicaid services in Oregon.

He took the helm of the Department of Consumer & Business Services in 2011, after 15 years in state government. Aside from a stint in Washington, D.C., Allen has lived most of his life in Oregon, graduating from Portland’s Grant High School and Oregon State University with a degree in economics.

“Pat is a key member of my health care cabinet and has led the state in a complex transition into the Oregon Health Insurance Exchange,” Brown said in a press release. “I have asked Pat to bring his expertise to the Oregon Health Authority and lead the agency into a forward looking and responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.”

Jean Straight, the deputy director of DCBS, will take over as interim director of that agency while Allen is working for OHA and Brown considers an appointment for a permanent director at the health authority. Straight has been in her position since 2012, after coming over from the Oregon Youth Authority.

Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, announced hearings this week into the communications scandal when the Legislature returns to Salem next month. “If there’s a real problem, we need to take care of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Riley said. “I’ve worked with Pat many times, and I respect him.”

Saxton was greeted with praise of her own when she first took the helm of OHA at the beginning of 2015, but she quickly lost favor in the difficult, often thankless job. Even before that scandal emerged, Saxton was in hot water for her seeming inability to manage a state agency that looked increasingly ungovernable.

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson made waves revealing that the Oregon Health Authority had Oregon Health Plan members on its rolls with no way of proving they were eligible, and Saxton and her subordinates testified at a March hearing of the House Health Committee that OHP members were routinely lapsing in coverage and being taken out of the coordinated care system for weeks and months on end.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who chaired that hearing, did not want to “pile on” to the criticism of Saxton in a phone interview with The Lund Report, but he repeated his criticism of OHA leadership at the time as a “failure of organizational culture.”

Greenlick has been in communication with Brown about the qualities needed in a new director, which should include someone who could change the culture to prioritize serving the poor and vulnerable who are on Medicaid and ensure that everyone who is eligible receives health coverage. “I told her I was not available for the job,” quipped Greenlick, 82.

“I think [Allen] will do a terrific job,” Greenlick said. “I have total respect for him. He is willing to take total responsibility for his agency.”

In a letter to Allen, Brown shared some of Greenlick’s goals while also imploring Allen to increase transparency at OHA, ensure accurate Medicaid eligibility and maximize enrollment in the CCOs.

As the OHA has teetered, the lower-profile Department of Consumer & Business Services has taken on a greater role in healthcare over the past three years. In 2015, at the behest of Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, the state’s responsibilities for the online health insurance marketplace were moved to DCBS, not OHA, when Cover Oregon closed shop.

DCBS was also given responsibility over any 1332 waivers to amend the Affordable Care Act, which the agency plans to deploy to stabilize the individual health insurance market. In June, the Legislature passed a bill that contained a policy put forward by Allen’s agency to tax premiums over the entire health insurance market to fund a reinsurance program for the individual health market, which lowered premiums in that risk pool by 6 percent for 2018.

In a sign of legislators’ confidence of Allen, a bipartisan group, including Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, supported legislation that gave Allen and his agency sweeping powers to suspend portions of the state insurance code to avert a collapse of the market if moves by Congress and President Trump lead insurers to flee the market.

“He’s got a solid track record, and he’s always been impressive when we’ve had a chance to work with him,” said Doug Riggs, a healthcare lobbyist and the co-chairman of the non-profit advocacy group, Human Services Coalition of Oregon. “He can step right in and hit the ground running.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected]

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