Health agency's tactics are appalling

The state agency that couldn't shoot straight when it was trying to develop the failed Cover Oregon website now appears to have shot itself in the foot.

The Oregon Health Authority, which administers Medicaid, has been caught planning to manipulate news coverage to discredit a provider it is battling over reimbursement rates. The scheme, revealed in a story in the Portland Tribune last week, reflects poorly on the agency and on the administration of Gov. Kate Brown, who was slow to respond to the revelations.

The OHA administers the Oregon Health Plan, the state's version of Medicaid. Health care service to low-income Oregonians is overseen by 16 Coordinated Care Organizations that contract with the state. One of those CCOs, Portland-based nonprofit FamilyCare, was engaged in a court battle with the OHA over the reimbursement rates the agency was paying.

After the Portland Tribune won a public-records appeal, it obtained January and February emails between OHA communications staff and agency officials proposing a plan to plant negative stories in the news to discredit FamilyCare. The plan was to recruit a high-cost client such as an HIV patient who would complain, off the record, to news reporters about lack of care from FamilyCare. The idea was to "hurt their credibility in the news," according to the emails, portraying FamilyCare as more concerned with increasing revenue than with patient health.

Ultimately, the emails revealed, the plan was intended to discredit FamilyCare in the eyes of lawmakers in hopes that would prevent the Legislature from intervening in the rate dispute.

No stories were produced as a result of the plan, and OHA officials dismissed the emails as a preliminary discussion that was never fully implemented. Later, officials told the Tribune the plan was shelved because it did not meet the agency's values.

But OHA Director Lynne Saxton replied positively to an email describing the most aggressive version of the plan, calling it "a good start."

Saxton, who was appointed by then Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2014, resigned Tuesday.

Equally as disturbing as a public agency plotting to manipulate news coverage for political ends is a governor who took the better part of four days to respond after the plan was revealed.

Brown did not respond to the Portland Tribune story last Thursday when it appeared or on Friday. The governor issued a statement late Tuesday praising Saxton's tenure in the job while announcing her resignation:

"Today, after discussion with Lynne Saxton, we have agreed that her resignation is in the best interests of the agency," 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."

If the plan described in the emails reflects "Oregon's values" or the commitment of the OHA staff, Saxton is not the only one who should be looking for a new job.

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