James Schroeder, CEO of Health Share of Oregon, the state’s largest Medicaid insurer, became the interim director of the Oregon Health Authority on Jan. 10. (Photo provided by Tina Kotek’s office)

Two months into leading the Oregon Health Authority, one of Oregon’s biggest agencies, interim director James Schroeder announced he’s stepping down.

He told Gov. Tina Kotek in a resignation letter on Thursday that he has been “honored” to oversee the agency at a time of transition but had decided not to pursue the permanent director position. 

“My family is the center of my life, and I recognize the demands of this role are not compatible with the focus I want to give to them,” he wrote.

Kotek announced his departure in a release on Friday, and Schroeder also messaged agency staff.

“You have worked hard to save lives and improve the health of people in every community statewide,” he said. “I’ve been inspired by your dedication to protecting and expanding health coverage, ensuring more people have access to behavioral health support and promoting public health.”

His last day will be in two weeks. Kotek’s press secretary, Elisabeth Shepard, told the Capital Chronicle that Kotek did not seek Schroeder’s resignation, as she had for his predecessor, Patrick Allen.

Kotek is starting a national search for a permanent director. She plans to appoint another interim director, Shepard said.

In the release, Kotek said Schroeder had helped the agency move towards prioritizing behavioral health, bringing in new leaders and moving towards expanded Medicaid benefits and an audit of members, all of which are agency priorities.

With a range of programs, the Oregon Health Authority is one of Oregon’s largest agencies, with more than 4,770 employees and a budget of $32.4 billion over two years. Medicaid, which covers one in three Oregonians, has a two-year budget of $22.6 billion, with nearly three-quarters paid by the federal government.

The next director will oversee a major shift in Medicaid. Starting in April, officials will determine whether all of the nearly 1.5 million residents on the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid system, still qualify. The federal government limits coverage to people who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty limit, or  $18,075 a year for a single person and a maximum of $36,908 a year for a family of four. 

Health authority officials expect that 300,000 people who earn more will lose the free insurance, but up to 65,000 of them are likely to retain coverage under a new plan for those who earn between 138% and 200% of the federal poverty level, or up to $29,160 a year for a single person and up to $60,000 annually for a family of four.

Besides the membership audit, another Medicaid change is in the works: Starting next year, the free health insurance will offer temporary housing benefits to those who are medically eligible, extend Medicaid coverage to children up to the age of six, offer two-year coverage for adults and provide nutrition assistance. 

“This is innovative,” said Robb Cowie, director of the agency’s communications. “We’re the first in the nation to be given this authority.” 

The federal government will give Oregon $1 billion for the expanded benefits, which will start next January. Cowie said the agency is now moving towards putting that in place. The health authority director will oversee those changes – along with Dana Hittle, who Schroeder just made the permanent Medicaid director. An agency veteran, she had been interim Medicaid director for two years.

The health authority director also oversees a new focus on behavioral health. Ebony Clarke, former Multnomah County Health director, is the new behavioral health director for the Oregon Health Agency.

Kotek wants Oregon to have a better record on behavioral health care after failing to meet demand for years. National rankings, like the organization Mental Health America, have consistently ranked Oregon as having one of the highest rates of mental health disease and lowest rates of access to treatment. 

“Improving access to mental health and addiction services remains a top priority for my administration, and I’m looking forward to bringing on a permanent director who will lead the agency in carrying that work forward,” Kotek said. 

Overseeing such a large agency with a range of programs, from children’s mental health to public health to the Oregon State Hospital and Medicaid – means long days.

“It’s a pretty unrelenting job,” Cowie said. “It’s a job that requires long hours and working through weekends. It’s highly demanding.”

Schroeder’s resignation coincides with the legislative session and a review of the two-year budget. Cowie said the agency has asked for authorization of a two-year budget of $34.5 billion, marking a slight increase.

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.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.