For the second time this year, a communications plan hatched in part by the Oregon Health Authority has backfired badly.
The news about this latest communication plan, which aimed to discredit a coordinated care organization in the Portland area, was broken last week by the Portland Tribune. On Tuesday, the disclosures prompted Gov. Kate Brown to give the boot to the head of the Health Authority, Lynne Saxton. Saxton's forced resignation will be effective at the end of the month.
And the entire affair reminded at least some observers of a similar issue over a communications plan in which the Health Authority was involved. That plan involved Entek International in Lebanon and revolved around how to tell area residents about plans to install air monitors around the company's plant to measure levels of a carcinogenic chemical. (To be fair, that effort also involved the state Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies.)
Taken together, the debacles lead to questions about the leadership and attitudes among top staff members at the Health Authority — not to mention Brown's ability to offer effective oversight over the executive branch of government.
Here's the background: The Health Authority has been feuding for years with FamilyCare Health, one of the state's coordinated care organizations that offers services to Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) patients. The dispute has prompted litigation, with FamilyCare taking issue with the Health Authority's ratemaking process.
We're not in a position to judge the merits of that litigation.
But the Portland Tribune, basing its reporting in part on documents it accessed through a records request, found that the Health Authority in January assigned staff members to create a communications plan with the goal to discredit FamilyCare. Among the tactics the state agency discussed: Finding HIV patients to complain about the quality of care at FamilyCare and connecting the patients with a Portland-area newspaper. The message the Health Authority wanted to get out via the communications plan, was that the nonprofit FamilyCare was "more concerned with the bottom line and increasing revenues than the health of Oregonians."
A spokesman for the Health Authority said the plans were intended to "sketch out a range of outreach options and messages we explored to counter FamilyCare's aggressive and often incorrect public statements." The spokesman added that the plans "were never fully reviewed or approved, or fully implemented."
Well, maybe. But the Tribune also noted a Feb. 18 email in which Saxton signaled her approval of the draft communications plan.
In any event, it was enough to persuade Brown to ask for Saxton's resignation.
It's not the only issue that has troubled the Health Authority this year: It has awarded Medicaid benefits to tens of thousands of Oregonians who don't qualify for the program. It also continues to work through bugs involved with a $160 million system meant to automate Medicaid enrollment.
But the idea of a state agency charged with oversight of an organization actively considering a smear campaign against that organization is an issue of an entirely different magnitude — and we fear that it says something about the attitude of some state officials toward businesses.
That was the sense we had in the wake of the Entek case, during which company representatives said they felt ambushed by state officials who wanted to roll out their communications plan immediately. That prompted Entek to race to court for an unprecedented gag order blocking the state from rolling out the communications plan. (The air monitors, by the way, still aren't in place in Lebanon.)
These two examples are the kinds of things business advocates point to when they talk about what they see as an anti-business attitude in Oregon. It's a breach that the governor needs to heal. The first step, it seems, would be for her to get her own house in order.