Oregon’s New Behavioral Health Director Is An Outsider With Insider Experience

After a months-long search, the Oregon Health Authority has found a behavioral health director, a position that mental health experts and advocates say is sorely needed.

State officials chose Steve Allen, a Wisconsin-based senior policy adviser for the Council of State Governments, a national nonprofit that helps state governments develop policy, to oversee mental health policy and strategy. Allen will start April 29.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran said the state desperately needs a behavioral health leader to fill the vacuum that was left when former Health Authority Director Lynne Saxton disbanded the state’s behavioral health and substance abuse programs.

Patrick Allen told The Lund Report one of Allen’s first tasks will be to assess whether the $1.4 billion the agency asked for would cover Oregon’s behavioral health needs.

“His mix of temperament, expertise and familiarity with the complexity in Oregon of behavioral health means he’s going to hit the ground running and be a great addition to our leadership,” Patrick Allen said.

Steve Allen, 62, has no relation to the health authority director.

‘Uniquely Qualified’

Steve Allen, a licensed clinical social worker, formerly led Minnesota’s mental health and substance abuse treatment program, where he oversaw the operation of 19 transitional, residential and acute behavioral health facilities.

He also has worked with Oregon’s behavioral health system, serving as an outside expert on an Oregon committee studying ways to improve how the state’s criminal justice system and behavioral health systems treat people experiencing mental health crises. As part of that work, Allen and other committee members visited 27 counties in Oregon.

He earned a bachelor’s in religious studies from Edgewood College, a master’s in religious ethics from the University of Chicago and a master of science in clinical social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

“He is incredibly well qualified, and is uniquely qualified to hit the ground running,” Patrick Allen said Monday during a presentation in Salem to the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services.

Patrick Allen said the new behavioral health director is adaptable, a skill that’s useful in Oregon where decisions are often forged after meetings with a wide range of people. While in the committee, Steven Allen would present a report, listen to feedback and then make substantive changes to the document, the health director said.

Steve Allen was not available for comment, but he praised the state in a statement.

“I have been impressed by the level of dedication, passion and sophistication of Oregon’s behavioral health stakeholders and advocates,” Allen said. “I am excited for the opportunity to influence statewide strategy to transform Oregon’s behavioral health system and better support recovery for Oregonians.”

Steve Allen’s experience working on mental health issues both inside and outside the state made him more desirable than candidates with experience limited to Oregon, said Mary Rumbaugh, Clackamas County’s behavioral health director. Rumbaugh was among three officials outside the health authority who interviewed Allen as part of the hiring process.  

His experience working with other states means he can show Oregon how to implement programs that are working elsewhere and avoid those that aren’t, she said.

“Steve brought a bigger vision,” Rumbaugh said. “The last round of candidates (were) pretty ingrained in the way the Oregon system has been working.”

She hopes the new behavioral health director will use his fresh perspective to create programs and initiatives to improve mental health care in the state.  

Oregon is among the worst states when it comes to the prevalence of mental illness. It ranked 49, followed by Idaho and Nevada, in a nationwide scorecard that includes Washington D.C. Developed by the nonprofit Mental Health America, the ratings are based on the prevalence of mental illness and access to treatment. In mental illness alone, Oregon ranks No. 51 - the worst in the country.

“We need a leader who can help us expand beyond the Oregon way and help us think differently, and in a more creative way,” Rumbaugh said.

Beyond his professional experience, Allen is charismatic and empathetic, Rumbaugh and Patrick Allen said.  

Rachel Solotaroff, president and CEO of Central City Concern, which works with mental health and substance use disorder patients, agreed. She, too, interviewed Allen. Solotaroff described him  as “warm” and “empathetic” in the way he spoke about people experiencing behavioral health crises. She also said he recognized the importance of trauma-informed care, which involves being sensitive to a patient’s past trauma and taking it into account when treating them.  

“You could tell he deeply identified with those individuals,” Solotaroff said.

More Money, Fewer Interviews

Allen was selected after an initial round of interviews failed.

The Oregon Health Authority had multiple candidates but closed the recruitment, saying that the slate of interviewers could not agree on one . The previous candidates met with 50 health authority officials and community members over the course of four rounds of interviews. The final round included interviews with more than 25 behavioral health experts from the community who work with the state.

The maximum salary offered was $160,000 per year.

The second time around, the Oregon Health Authority pared down the hiring process. Patrick Allen and Margie Stanton, director of the Health Systems Division, both interviewed Steve Allen and then they sought input from Solotaroff, Rumbaugh and Heather Jefferis, executive director of the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health.

The Oregon Health Authority also increased the salary. Steve Allen will make $225,000 annually..

“I know that it was a frustrating process for lots of folks, probably in particular Pat, to not have somebody as quickly,” Rumbaugh said. But, she said, “being patient was probably worth it. We’re at a really opportune time to bring someone in.”

Rebuilding Trust

Steve Allen’s personability will be important as he starts his new job. His ability to rebuild trust behavioral health community will be key, Commissioner Meieran, an emergency room doctor, told The Lund Report.

Anyone who has worked in behavioral health care in Oregon has been on multiple state-led coalitions, task forces and committees all to address the same issue. And yet, they’ve seen very little improvement. The mental health problems have only increased since Meieran started working as a doctor almost a decade ago, she said. More people are experiencing crises, and they’re often in even worse condition.

“We have pretty good understanding of what the problems are,” Meieran said.  “What we don’t have is direction and leadership to point us toward solutions.”

Rebuilding that trust will involve limiting the turnover of people who work on behavioral health and substance abuse disorder within the health authority, she said. Right now, there’s a lot of turnover, a lack of subject matter expertise and a perceived lack of communication from the health authority on behavioral health issues, she said.

She also urged the state to increase transparency around how mental health systems are funded and to improve communication with community members. People experience mental health crises often aren’t aware of the programs that do exist, and even when they are, they feel like they’re inaccessible to them.

“They feel like you need a secret code to be able to access them,” Meieran said. Like “you need to be able to ask the specific question to enter the door to speak the password to get into the service.”

Transparency around why certain programs are funded will also help rebuild the trust, Meieran said. Communication and accountability are key, she said.

Meieran and Rumbaugh agreed that Oregon does not need someone to reinvent the wheel on by studying all of Oregon’s behavioral health challenges. It needs a director that will develop a larger vision for moving the state forward, they independently said.

“We need someone who can take all that rich information and move us forward, and I think (Steve Allen) can really do that,” Rumbaugh said.

Have a tip about behavioral health care in Oregon? Reach Jessica Floum at [email protected].


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