Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen speaks on Tuesday at a health care conference in Portland. The Oregon State of Reform Health Policy Conference had more than 300 in attendance. (Photo by Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Health Authority’s director, Patrick Allen, told the agency on Thursday that he will step down in early January, when Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends.

He informed employees about his decision in an email obtained by the Capital Chronicle that said he was “sad” to be leaving: “Honestly, I am sad to be leaving this work behind,” Allen said. “We have much ahead of us still at OHA. While we have demonstrated that we CAN deliver real health equity as we did in closing our COVID-19 vaccine gap, we have a long way to go to allocate and reallocate power and resources in a way that recognizes, reconciles, and rectifies the injustices and unfairness in our health systems.”

Allen, who’s 59, said he will leave Jan. 9 as Gov.-elect Tina Kotek takes the reins. She had indicated during the campaign that she might replace him as had Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson, who ran as an unaffiliated candidate. 

Allen shepherded the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, at times facing fire, particularly during the early days of the vaccine rollout. Under Allen, the agency has set a goal of eliminating health inequities by 2030 but vaccination rates among communities of color lagged the first year, later catching up.

Allen indicated in his resignation letter to Brown that he was proud of his leadership during the pandemic, saying Oregon has “one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates” in the country and had closed the equity gap with communities of color.

“In Oregon, more than  eight in 10 people (81%) in the Latino, Latina, Latinx community are vaccinated, nearly the rate of white Oregonians (82%). Today, 95% percent of Blacks, African Americans and African immigrants in Oregon are vaccinated. No  state in the nation has posted a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate for the Black  community,” Allen wrote. 

Allen praised Brown, who came under fire during the pandemic for closing schools and requiring masks in public places indoors: “You have made hard choices that enabled us to save thousands of people in  Oregon and navigate the worst health crisis our nation has faced in more than a century. I  appreciate the integrity of your leadership and all the support you’ve given me and the staff  at OHA,” Allen wrote.

He oversees 4,770 employees and multiple programs, including Medicaid, which covers one in three Oregonians through the Oregon Health Plan.

Allen noted that Medicaid coverage had expanded under his leadership and that now nearly 95% of Oregonians have health insurance.

But critics have blasted the agency over its slowness in distributing more than $1 billion to create behavioral health programs and new facilities, as well as addiction treatment networks as part of the rollout of Measure 110, Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure that included a plan to step up treatment. In national studies, the state has repeatedly had the highest or close to the highest rate of people with mental health and addiction problems in national studies.

Lawmakers allocated the money toward behavioral health in 2021 but the agency only finished distributing the biggest share of fund this August, a year later than scheduled.

In his resignation letter to Brown, Allen said by the time he leaves, all of the money will be distributed or promised: “By the end of 2022, OHA will  have spent or obligated nearly $1.2 billion of the $1.35 billion Oregon lawmakers  appropriated for the 2021-2023 biennium to transform the behavioral health care.” 

Allen said challenges remain in behavioral health in his email to employees.

“While we have made great strides to improve our behavioral health system, we have a long way to go and the pandemic has made that path longer and much more difficult,” Allen said.

Brown tapped Allen to take over the $30 billion agency in August 2017 to replace former director Lynne Saxton, who was pushed out after she waged a campaign against a local Medicaid insurer. Before that, Allen led the Department of Consumer and Business Services for six years. In his resignation letter to Brown, Allen said the department was a mess when he took over:

“When you asked me to lead the agency in September 2017, OHA was in crisis.  The agency’s relationships with stakeholders, legislators and the public had been ruptured  and its credibility had been profoundly eroded,” Allen wrote. “I brought the values that have guided me throughout my career – transparency,  accountability and the wise use of public resources – to the task of rebuilding public trust in  OHA.”

In particular, he said the agency has been working on building trust with communities of color. “We recognized that we could not fulfill our mission while so many communities throughout Oregon continued to experience unfair health disparities caused by historic and present impacts of racism, oppression and genocide,” Allen wrote.

Allen had a “serious” fall on Jan. 23 and was hospitalized, according to a news release from the agency two days later. He was evaluated for heart issues and returned to his home in Sherwood within three days. The health authority said he did not have COVID-19.

During his seven-week absence, his deputy, Kris Kautz, ran the agency, including during the short legislative session. Normally, Allen would be testifying before legislative committees.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.