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)

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said Tuesday at a health care conference in Portland that the agency made missteps in trying to end health inequities during the pandemic. 

He said Oregon health care providers, insurers and other health officials must build trust with racial and ethnic communities to eradicate health care inequities that affect hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, including people of color, low-income households and others. 

He also said the state needs to shift more authority to local communities who work with marginalized groups.

“At OHA, we’ve had our stumbles,” Allen told the audience.

Allen’s remarks came at the annual Oregon State of Reform Health Policy Conference. State of Reform is a national non-partisan group that organizes health care policy conferences in a dozen states. More than 300 people attended the Oregon event, many from different sectors of the health care industry such as insurers, providers and state agencies.

One of the lessons learned came during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, when minority leaders publicly criticized the health authority for failing to reach their people. 

“It was hard to hear those messages,” Allen said.

In response, the agency turned its focus away from massive vaccine clinics and pivoted towards smaller neighborhood clinics to reach more ethnically and racially diverse groups. It also set a goal of vaccinating at least eight in 10 people of color, Allen said. 

The agency reached its goals, achieving a 95% vaccination rate among Black people, Allen said, stressing that involvement from community leaders and groups was crucial.

Allen said that the goal of eliminating health inequities is “attainable and failing to achieve it is inexcusable.”

The director said the state’s latest $1.1 billion agreement  with the federal government will provide more services through the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid. It serves 1.4 million low-income Oregonians, or more than one in three residents.

The agreement includes a provision to help members with rent, a critical need as Oregon faces an affordable housing crisis.

That expansion of services means that for up to six months, Oregonians can receive coverage for rent, utilities and other housing needs. Oregon will be the first state in the nation to use Medicaid money for housing, Allen said, adding shelter is crucial for people to maintain health.

The Oregon Health Authority has the goal of eliminating health inequities by 2030, which is likely to outlast Allen’s tenure.

Even now, his days at the agency’s helm appear numbered as the gubernatorial election looms ahead. All three candidates for governor – Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson – agree that the health authority needs new leadership and better oversight, according to a report by the Willamette Week.

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.