Although the plan went nowhere, Oregonians should be outraged that a state agency even considered planting negative news stories about a health care nonprofit.
The Portland Tribune broke the story last week about an Oregon Health Authority proposal to promote negative news coverage and undermine the credibility of FamilyCare Health, one of the state’s coordinated care organizations.
The draft communications plan included looking for an HIV patient who would complain about FamilyCare and trying to get a journalist to write about that patient’s experience. Journalists often work off such tips, but it’s beyond callous for a state agency — especially the state health agency — to consider exploiting a patient in such a way.
The plan never was implemented. Lynne Saxton, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said it was part of an initial draft that was soon squelched.
“If something bad happens (at OHA), I take full responsibility for it, as I am doing here,” she told us on Monday.
Saxton said she encourages her staff to be creative. But the fact that anyone in a state agency would even suggest planting negative news stories raises questions about the culture at the Oregon Health Authority and the leadership of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
“This is outrageous. I’ve never heard or seen anything like this,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, whose roots in state government reach back to the Tom McCall administration.
“This is not the Oregon way. Our way is to work collaboratively and hammer out compromises, not to throw people under the bus just because you disagree with them.”
The health authority already had raised eyebrows this year for its aggressive press releases about its dispute with FamilyCare, with which the health authority has been in litigation and mediation for 2 1/2 years.
It’s been a tough year for the state health department. This spring, Republican legislators criticized the health authority and the state Department of Environmental Quality for attempting “to push a misleading story line” regarding health and environmental concerns at Entek International in Lebanon. Legislators also were upset that the health authority may have been authorizing state-paid health care to substantial numbers of Oregonians who were ineligible, despite assurances to the Legislature that everything was under control.
Against that backdrop, it’s troubling that the state was slow to respond to last week’s Tribune article.
Saxton told us that she would be sending a letter of apology to Oregon’s coordinating care organizations, assuring them that the health authority would treat them fairly and would not tolerate negative public-relations efforts. She also will ask the state Department of Justice to train her staff on attorney-client privilege.
Those may be worthwhile steps, assuming they promote transparency and openness instead of finding ways to hide “creative” ideas under the veil of attorney-client privilege. Still, it is disconcerting that the Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to the Tribune’s revelations.
One leading Republican candidate for governor, Bend Rep. Knute Buehler, said the Oregon Health Authority’s negative-publicity plan – even though it never was implemented – demonstrates arrogance and a lack of accountability by a state agency. The state’s CEO, Gov. Brown, should recognize that as well.