Health Secretary seeks to improve access to care in New Mexico | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

New Mexico’s newly confirmed health secretary Patrick Allen isn’t ducking questions about stepping down as Oregon’s top health official in early January, just before he takes office. a new governor.

He announced his resignation in November, days after Democratic Governor Tina Kotek was elected. He didn’t really have a choice.

He was quit or fired for Allen, 60, who had spent five years as director of the Oregon Health Authority – Kotek had said during the campaign trail that she would fire him amid criticism over his handling of issues with the state. behavioral health system.

“If I had been running for governor, I probably would have fired myself too,” Allen said in a recent interview.

During his initial review by the Senate Rules Committee after Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed him to head the New Mexico Department of Health, he made similar remarks.

Allen enters an agency struggling with staffing shortages in a post-pandemic era following the retirement of Dr. David Scrase, who became the face of the state’s response to COVID-19 while leading the both the health department and the social services department. It faces difficult challenges: filling vacancies; improving access to health care; address not only common illnesses among state residents, but also community needs, such as water quality, nutritious food, and vaccinations. It must also prepare the state for the next pandemic.

Allen is candid about the criticism he faced in Oregon.

“The thing is, I didn’t fix the state’s behavioral health system in the five years I was there,” he said. “Now you and I might think there are reasons for that, and the pandemic is certainly a part of that, but voters don’t care. They shouldn’t have to. They know they are upset to see people sleeping on the streets of downtown Portland openly using drugs, and they are upset that their friends and family members do not have access to the services they need.

Kotek’s wish to “clean up the Oregon State Health Authority” after his election was “a pretty natural response,” he said.

Allen, who was confirmed by the Senate in February to serve as health secretary to Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet, said the governor accused him of “taking a hard line on the Department of Health.” … The agency and the people who work there have been through a lot. It is no exaggeration to say that people are traumatized.

“And like health agencies across the country, we did what we had to do to get things done during the pandemic,” he added. “And that meant leaving some systems by the wayside while we figured out how to get things done quickly.”

His trans-pandemic role, as he likes to describe it, will include managing a staff vacancy rate which, on paper, is approaching 30% – with more than 1,000 jobs unfilled.

Allen said he thinks vacancy rates were overinflated for a number of reasons, largely because some positions were created with expected funding, including grants, that weren’t secured.

Its goal is to first “clean up those vacancies from the system.”

He thinks the real vacancy rate for the department is between 20% and 20%.

“There isn’t an industry that isn’t sorely understaffed,” Allen said, adding that his agency needs to make a compelling case to target “millennials and post-millennials who are motivated to work in organizations based on the mission”.

He said the message should be: ‘You come to work here not because you are going to bank as an infectious disease doctor, but because you have the opportunity every day to help people, to make your corner of New Mexico a better place. than it would have been otherwise.

The Department of Health is in the early stages of creating a plan to address a number of issues, Allen said.

One of the main goals is to determine how to improve access to health care across the state, which he says goes beyond the ability to see a doctor regularly and includes “investments around quality water and access to nutritious food, vaccinations for children, all those things that help communities be healthy. How can we provide this to all of New Mexico? »

After the pandemic, he said, he hopes “people will pay more attention to the unsexy things that help us live longer, healthier lives.”

Allen will also offer guidance as the state attempts to create a statewide health authority – a priority for Lujan Grisham. The Legislature approved Senate Bill 16, which seeks to transform the Department of Human Services into the Department of Health Care Authority.

The authority, which would replace the Social Services Division, would combine various divisions and be responsible for reducing health insurance costs for state employees.

The authority wouldn’t be in Allen’s purview, but he said “once the dust settles after the session and we figure out what happened or didn’t happen, the governor can figure out what we need to do.” do to move forward”.

Above Allen’s work looms the possibility of another virus, such as bird flu, spreading to a number of countries, including the United States.

“It’s kind of sobering that this [COVID-19] was a once-in-100-year experience,” Allen said. “It certainly won’t be another 100 years before we see another infectious disease like this.”

Learning about the nature of infectious diseases is just part of Allen’s new role – and a far cry from his childhood dreams of becoming a high school music teacher. The Portland native said he enjoys playing the violin, clarinet and saxophone.

He set aside instruments for a banker’s ledger after studying economics at Oregon State University, then held various banking positions for decades, realizing along the way that his “generic skill set is that I am capable of entering into a situation that I do not know”. ton about, being able to learn quickly, sort of process through what things need to happen and figure out what needs to be done.

Allen eventually joined state government and ended up leading Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services, which oversees building safety, workplace safety, and finance.

The experience led former Oregon Governor Kate Brown to appoint him director of the state’s health authority in 2017.

Former Oregon State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, who worked regularly with Allen, said she was “apprehensive” when he took the job.

“I knew he didn’t have a lot of experience in healthcare and I was worried he wasn’t a visionary,” she said, adding that she quickly learned he had the right skills.

“He’s a really good listener, he’s an incredibly hard worker, and as a result, he was a really good director,” she said. “He brought a lot of stability to the division.”

Oregon State Senator Elizabeth Steiner also praised his performance. “I firmly believe that a good manager does not necessarily have to have expertise in this area. They need to have expertise in recognizing talent, hiring it and keeping people,” she said.

Allen has done “an incredible job” during the pandemic, Steiner added. She felt Allen ran the health agency with “a surprising amount of grace and good humor and followed the science.”

Steiner said the criticism of Allen’s handling of behavioral health was unfair.

“He did his best given the situation,” she said. “Oregon has always struggled to have a good behavioral health system.”

Some Republican senators in New Mexico voted against Allen, arguing that his approach to the pandemic in Oregon was similar to New Mexico’s and resulted in the closure of schools and businesses.

Allen sticks to his decisions.

The Commonwealth Fund’s 2022 report on how states have handled the COVID-19 crisis in health care access, quality, outcomes and spending placed Oregon 14th, tied with Maine and Pennsylvania and well above many states, including New Mexico, which ranked 26th.

Allen said he first met Lujan Grisham virtually in November as he began weighing other job opportunities. He was looking for a new challenge.

He noted that New Mexico and Oregon differ in many ways. “I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding these dynamics and thinking about how I approach things like health equity here,” he said.

“Because if I take the things I learned there and try to do the same here, I think I’m going to crash on the rocks and burn – and I should.”

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