Oregon Health Authority Responds to Conservative Media Barrage

Patrick Allen Oregon Health Authority director.jpg

Two weeks after an Oregon Health Authority email became fodder for conservative media criticism, Director Pat Allen has issued a statement defending the employee who wrote it and stressing the agency’s dedication to fighting racism.

On July 2, a writer for Reason, a libertarian magazine, highlighted a snippet of the health authority staffer’s email announcing a decision to postpone a meeting between public officials, community representatives and health care industry participants in order to be responsive to requests to do so by participants. The email also included the words “urgency is a white supremacy value.”

Since then, Allen wrote in a July 15 email to agency staff and others, the employee in question has “received a number of texts, emails and phone calls laden with hate for the way she characterized that decision … People have a right to disagree with our actions, but it is never acceptable to intentionally expose anyone to threats and intimidation.”

Reason is a magazine and website affiliated with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank set up and funded to promote values of individual freedom, such as from regulation and taxation. Its July 2 piece was amplified in social media and on Fox News, where a commentator known for hyperbolic rhetoric, Greg Gutfeld, called the email “diabolical.”

The Reason piece noted that there is a line of thinking behind the staffer’s comment, linking to a website entitled “White Supremacy Values.” There, anti-racist educator Tema Okun observed that hasty decisions can be less thoughtful and lack inclusivity, thus helping to perpetuate inequities.

But for the most part the conservative media barrage triggered by the email omitted or glossed over important context.

Go PDF iconhere to read Allen's email.

High-Stakes Meeting

The subject of the email in question was a meeting about Oregon’s waiver application for approval from the federal government for changes to the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan, intended to address health inequities.

Specifically, the state wants the federal government to approve a plan to shift decision-making for a portion of Medicaid spending over to a new system of localized “community investment councils.” 

The plan bears high stakes in terms of politics, agency mission and dollars. Major players in Oregon’s health care landscape don’t like the plan, feeling it’s duplicative — and yet hundreds of millions of federal dollars requested by the state are riding on it. Meanwhile, the federal government has been asking tough questions. So perhaps it was not surprising that some participants in the discussion wanted more time.

"This is a complicated proposal that involves a lot of moving parts and a lot of people," Allen told The Lund Report in an interview. 

Danielle Droppers, who authored the message in the email, works for the health authority’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, where she manages the Regional Health Equity Coalition Program, a different locally-based initiative set up by the agency a decade ago to promote equity with participation from community representatives and public officials.

Her message said that based on input from participants hoping to delay the meeting, the “community conversation” about the new collaboratives mentioned in the state waiver application would be rescheduled.

“In being responsive to partners from across the state, we’re hearing the timing of this meeting is not ideal and that people would like more time to prepare for this important conversation. We recognize that urgency is a white supremacy value that can get in the way of more intentional and thoughtful work, and we want to attend to this dynamic. Therefore, we will reach out at a later date to reschedule.”

Allen told The Lund Report that the line about urgency amounted to “shorthand for a much more nuanced concept” — specifically the tension between decision-making at a rapid pace and the desire to get meaningful input from the people affected.

However, several who received the email did not appreciate Droppers’ observation, the Reason article noted.

One Lake County Commissioner, James Williams, wrote back calling it “nonsensical” and “unprofessional,” saying, “If you want to cancel the meeting and give people more time to go over the material, just say that and move on.”

Both the Reason and Fox commentators went further, falsely claiming the meeting was delayed because “urgency is a white supremacy value,” as opposed to that being an additional statement offered by Droppers.

The Reason writer, for instance, wrote that “Government employees who are unprepared for meetings should not cite white supremacy as their excuse.”

Allen told The Lund Report that it seemed to him that the “white supremacy” line became “kind of an easy target” for commentators who were “tossing it around to readers into kind of confirming their own assumptions about how things work and about how people think … It was taken badly out of context, and used maliciously.”

In his written response to the furor over the email, Allen wrote that the agency he oversees “needed to reschedule a meeting to allow community partners to fully and meaningfully participate in decisions about policies and funding that affect real people’s lives. The delay was requested by community partners and the team member honored that request.”

He added, “Equity can only work at the speed of trust and it was important to take time to ensure everyone would be ready.”

Allen also wrote, that “Urgency has a vital and appropriate place in the work we do. From closing gaps in vaccination rates to eliminating inequities in infant mortality, we take urgent action to improve people’s lives and tackle pressing health threats every day. Every day we urgently act to protect drinking water, shield people from air toxics and ensure that people have access to quality health care. Every day, we treat hundreds of people with severe mental illness at our state hospital.

“But urgency can also be used, intentionally or not, to cut off conversation. To limit the opportunity for inclusion. To silence the voices of people who are most affected by the decisions that get made by people who traditionally exercise power. Not only is it appropriate to point out that dynamic, it’s necessary. We can’t break down structural and systemic racism until we can name it and interrupt it. And it’s deeply unfortunate that anyone in our agency should be assailed in the way that our team member was for doing the work that the agency has set forth to do.”

Why did Allen decide to respond when he did? Because the conversation was happening about the email without OHA’s perspective, he told The Lund Report.

 “I thought it was important for us to participate in that discussion and try to be be thorough about it.”

The other part was simple: the agency has been training employees to think about how to make inclusion a priority.

“I think it was important for our own staff to see that the agency wasn't going to, at the first sight of pushback, kind of turn tail, and that we really are committed to doing this work.”

As for the need to sometimes slow things down, Allen said it's about participation and trust. “I first experienced this at the agency when I went to my first tribal consultation. There's a state law that requires us, before we makes significant policy changes, to confer with Oregon's nine federally recognized tribes. And we were coming into these consultations basically dumping a 50-page document on a bunch of people and telling them, ‘I know, this is really complicated, sorry, we didn't get you this stuff before, but we need your answer by Friday, because there's this federal deadline that we're up against.’”

“And we really needed to kind of crack down on folks and say, ‘No, you've actually got to build in more time in this process’ ... And there are times when there just flat is no time. But I think we sort of kid ourselves into thinking that that is all the time.”

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

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Comments

Fortunately Director Allen is managing the complex Medicaid waiver process with a steady and capable hand, as it should be.  It is unfortunate he has to deal with such inappropriate and impertinent use of language from his own internal personnel. 

   The statement, in an email no less, that "urgency is a white supremecist value" itself reflects a totally "woke" racist attitude that is anything BUT professional. It is completely Un-productive.  Attitude and culture are very important to an effectively operating organization, public or private.   The emailer's comment should give rise to concern on the part of tax paying citizens that a very large State organization which is responsible for a substantial portion of the State Budget, may not be using its time and resources wisely, or with proper focus on results vs meaningless and divisive "identity politics".  I'm confident that it is not an attitude that the vast majority of the citizens would support.  

I know both Pat Allen and Danielle Droppers, and they are passionate and kind people working on huge issues that affect many Oregonians.  The way of thinking through and talking about inclusion is important.  And in this instance, the importance of inclusion has been demonstrated by the actions of OHA.  I am grateful for their leadership.

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