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Kotek closes in on new Oregon Health Authority director pick

New director will take over a crucial agency that’s lacked a permanent leader for seven months
Gov. Tina Kotek speaks at the signing of the health care staffing bill on Aug. 15, 2023 at the Capitol in Salem, Ore. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
October 5, 2023

After extending a national search the Oregon Health Authority’s next director due to a lack of candidates, Gov. Tina Kotek now expects to choose someone by the end of the month.

“We have narrowed the number of OHA director candidates down to a handful, and the process is ongoing,” said Kotek Press Secretary Elisabeth Shepard.

The agency, comprising about 5,000 employees, has lacked a permanent director since early March. That’s when Kotek’s initial pick, James Schroeder, offered his resignation after just seven weeks.

And given the post’s importance — overseeing the care of more than 1.3 million low-income Oregonians on the Oregon Health Plan as well as other programs —  the vacancy has been closely watched.

Chief Financial Officer Dave Baden has served as interim director, assisted by an on-loan OHSU lobbyist who is helping Kotek, Abby Tibbs. But as the agency languishes without a permanent leader, more top managers have continued to leave the agency. As a result, much of the agency’s top management are holding jobs on an interim basis — fueling what many agency observers describe as the natural tendency of middle managers to manage their programs in silos.

Felisa Hagins, who as executive director of the Service Employees International Union Oregon State Council has watched the vacancy closely while hoping the governor will wait for the right candidate, and not settle. She said she is “excited and optimistic” that Kotek is nearing a decision. She said she's confident that the governor will choose "someone who sees this as a giant opportunity: To lead in a state that's been in the forefront of health care reform.”

Josh Balloch, a vice-president of Allcare Health in southern Oregon, agrees that it's important to make the right pick. He told The Lund Report the new director should have the capacity to steer an agency that’s still recovering from the strains of the pandemic while absorbing new responsibilities added on by lawmakers.

“I think it’s important that the Oregon Health Authority have the right director that understands the vision of trying to change the system to focus on health, not delivering health care,” he said. “And I think it’s important that there’s somebody at the agency who has a complete vision of the different silos within the agency (and can forge) a clear shared vision … I think that’s really what’s been lacking.”

 Schroeder’s short tenure as director showed the challenges of the job — and also may have depressed interest in replacing him.

He seemed uniquely qualified to implement new housing-oriented provisions that he’d championed for the state, with his collaborative style and as former CEO of the organization serving Oregon Health Plan members in the greater Portland area, Health Share of Oregon. But he told Kotek he faced resistance within the agency and offered his resignation, later calling it a “toxic place.” He's since taken a job with the Portland office of Health Management Associates, a national consulting firm.

Adding to the challenges in replacing him was a state ethics rule interpretation that appeared to complicate the hiring of anyone with his background working as a contractor to the agency — meaning many of the potential candidates with the most familiarity with the unique history and rules of the Oregon Health Plan are potentially disqualified.

Kotek’s administration posted the job publicly in early June with the first review of applications scheduled to take place June 30. But in August, amid speculation that the right candidate had not surfaced, the state pushed back the deadline for application from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31.

Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Kotek’s office, declined to comment on why it’s taken so long to find a good candidate other than to say in an email, “The Governor is committed to hiring the best and most qualified candidate to direct the Oregon Health Authority.” She said it was a “deliberate, broad search.”

At that time, approximately 200 people had applied for the job, and the governor’s office did not expect to make an announcement before the application period closes, she added.

More recently, The Lund Report has learned, Kotek’s aides have been telling people that they are narrowing the field to two or three finalists, and expect to make a decision by the end of the month.

Olivia Quiroz, executive director of the Oregon Latino Health Coalition, said the pick comes at a crucial time.

“This position is very important: We now are in what you might call a post pandemic era where for communities of color, the Latino community especially, we’re seeing an increase in disparities,” she said. During the pandemic, the agency worked collaboratively with community-based and culturally-specific groups to help reach the communities that COVID-19 hit hardest, and Quiroz said the new pick should embrace and strengthen that relationship.

“We serve as the bridge,” she told The Lund Report, adding that people “come to us first before they go to government agencies for critical services. With this director we hope to have that understanding, who values that partnership.”

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.