Health

Kotek appoints former White House adviser Dr. Sejal Hathi to lead Oregon Health Authority

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Nov. 6, 2023 6:16 p.m. Updated: Nov. 6, 2023 10:47 p.m.
Dr. Sejal Hathi

Dr. Sejal Hathi

Courtesy of Gov. Tina Kotek's office

Gov. Tina Kotek announced Monday that she has appointed Dr. Sejal Hathi as the next director of the Oregon Health Authority.

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Hathi, 33, has an impressive resume. She has an M.D. and M.B.A. from Stanford University. She completed her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2021 and cared for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

She is currently New Jersey’s deputy health commissioner for public health services and the designated state health officer. Before that, Hathi served for two years as the White House’s senior policy adviser for public health.

A board-certified attending physician, she also was assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She’s also worked to elect Democrats. She was an advisor to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during his 2020 Democratic presidential primary bid, and she’s supported Arena, an organization that trains Democratic candidates.

Hathi is the first leader at OHA recruited from out of state since the agency was established in 2009.

“I’m both excited and humbled to be a part of the ground-breaking advances in health care access that are happening in Oregon,” Hathi stated in written remarks provided by the governor’s office.

“I look forward to continuing this proud tradition and working with the team to make every community in the state a healthier place to live.”

Hathi’s first day is Jan. 16.

The agency has been without a permanent director for nearly a year. On the campaign trail, Kotek announced she intended to replace then-director Patrick Allen. Allen had led the agency through a period of relative stability and headed Oregon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but made little progress in improving the state’s ability to deliver addiction treatment and care for people with serious mental illnesses.

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Kotek’s choice for interim director, James Shcroeder, resigned after less than two months in the role. Dave Baden, previously OHA’s chief financial officer, is serving as interim director.

The agency has the largest budget of any in the state and is in need of rebuilding after the pandemic, the political transition and burnout have gutted its ranks.

At the same time, the incoming OHA director will have to oversee several high-stakes and complex new initiatives, among them the mandate to improve implementation of Oregon’s controversial drug decriminalization measure, a federal waiver that has Oregon experimenting with major changes to its Medicaid services, the launch of a Basic Health Program and the expiration in 2026 of the taxes that provide state funding for the Medicaid program.

Hathi has limited experience in executive roles comparable to the agency director position she’s stepping into.

She has been a deputy commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Health since June. In that role, she oversees a budget of $2 billion, 13 direct reports and about 1,000 staff, Hathi said.

OHA employs more than 5,000 people and has a proposed budget of more than $30 billion for the 2023-2025 biennium.

Asked in her first press conference about her age and experience, Hathi said she was used to those questions. “There is no age requirement for the job,” she said.

Hathi described herself as a physician, social entrepreneur and first-generation American whose parents grew up in East Africa.

She was drawn to work in Oregon, she said, by the state’s national reputation for expanding access to publicly funded health care.

“I have fought for a world where health is not hoarded as a privilege by the few but is democratized with intention for all people,” she said.

She said she’ll initially focus on listening and developing relationships within the Health Authority. She’ll take her cues from staff “in the trenches” who’ve kept the agency running over the last year, she said.

Hathi said she understands her status as an outsider, and the work she has to do to win the trust of OHA staff — and Oregonians.

“I am here to stay,” she said. “Hopefully for two terms, if the team, the governor, the people of Oregon will have me.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect budget for the New Jersey Department of Public Health.

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