Oregon Health Authority Director Lynne Saxton resigns in the wake of planted news coverage
Oregon Health Authority Lynne Saxton has resigned in the wake of news of her involvement in a plan to influence lawmakers by planting negative and misleading news about a local nonprofit health provider.
The Portland Tribune on Thursday broke the news of a communication plan greeted approvingly by Saxton that talked of finding an HIV patient to complain about FamilyCare, then connect him or her off the record with local reporters.
The plan called for spreading negative news using lawmakers and lobbyists from other organizations as intermediaries, to disguise OHA's role and allow state officials to appear neutral. An email described the strategy as creating an "information buzz" in the state Capitol so lawmakers wouldn't intervene in a rate dispute between FamilyCare and the state.
The sudden resignation, which was first reported earlier Tuesday evening by The Oregonian, came amid growing speculation in the health care industry over Saxton's future and questions about why Gov. Kate Brown had not responded to the Tribune's reporting either before or after publication.
Brown, however, answered those questions in a brief statement late Tuesday.
"Today, after discussion with Lynne Saxton, we have agreed that her resignation is in the best interests of the agency," Governor Brown said. "Lynne has led the Oregon Health Authority through its most challenging times and helped me ensure that every Oregonian has access to the care they need. She is known as a fighter for Oregon's values and I am proud of how she brought that level of commitment to the staff of OHA."
Other announcements will be made regarding OHA leadership in the "coming weeks," according to the statement.
The communications plan was prepared as FamilyCare and the state were doing battle in court over whether OHA is giving FamilyCare a fair rate of reimbursement for its care of low-income Medicaid patients. FamilyCare is one of 16 coordinated care organizations, or CCOs, set up by state reforms to act much like insurance plans or HMOs to provide low-income patients with health care under the Oregon Health Plan. FamilyCare has been the most vocal CCO, often accusing state officials of incompetence or seeking to do the nonprofit harm, including in the pending litigation.
The communications plan called for getting reporters to write about FamilyCare and "look for opportunities to hurt their credibility in the news." The goal was to portray the nonprofit as "more concerned with the bottom line and increasing revenues than the health of Oregonians."
It called for highlighting the group's profit margins. Those margins appear larger than other CCOs in large part due to FamilyCare's simple corporate structure. In reality pretty much all the CCOs have enjoyed large profits, in part due to an influx of young and healthy patients under the Obamacare law. However the OHA communications plan did not call for providing that context.
The Tribune obtained the plan after having to file a records appeal with the Oregon Department of Justice over OHA's refusal to release the plan OHA then released more than 50 pages that had been improperly withheld.
Officials at first dismissed the plan, claiming it was not "fully implemented." Evolving talking points then said the plan was "not implemented," then said it was shelved because it does not meet OHA values.
The claims were at odds with a Feb. 18 email in which Saxton greeted the most aggressive draft of the plan prepared by OHA in an approving manner. She replied to the plan saying she'd read it and there were some new developments that "will build on the already good start you have outlined."
News that Saxton had entertained a plan to manipulate the Legislature using planted articles was just the latest in a series of questionable headlines around her tenure.
In April, the Malheur Enterprise and The Oregonian covered an accused killer's story of tricking state employees into thinking he was mentally ill, as well as Saxton's response of seeking legislation to prevent release of the records that allowed that story to be told. In May, The Oregonian and other media covered OHA's payment of millions under Medicaid to people who were ineligible for the program. And in June The Oregonian revealed serious problems and overruns in the enrollment technology that was supposed to succeed the failed $300 million Cover Oregon project.
Following the Tribune article's publication late last week, Saxton had appeared to be battling for her job. On Monday she sent a letter of apology to the coordinated care organizations that serve Oregon Health Plan patients.
The apology appeared to blame staff while distancing herself from any role in the planning. Saxton then echoed the letter in an email to staff a little after 3:20 p.m. Tuesday. It provided no hint of her imminent departure, reflecting that the choice was not hers.
"Like any organization, OHA is made up of people who can make mistakes, as our staff did when they were thinking out loud in the midst of an adversarial litigation process," she wrote. "I regret this mistake and the way it reflects on our agency's mission and staff. However, we will learn from this experience and continue to advance professionalism throughout our culture."
Hours later, shortly before 7p.m., she sent out another all-staff email announcing her resignation:
"After nearly three years leading the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), I wanted to let you know that I submitted my resignation to Governor Brown today. OHA has a vital mission: to protect and improve the health of all Oregonians. Nothing should distract us from advancing that mission, because nothing is more important than the well-being of the people of our state. I decided that stepping down would give OHA the best opportunity to stay focused on delivering the essential health services we provide to Oregonians and continuing to transform our health system to provide better care, better health and lower costs."