New Oregon Health Authority director Sejal Hathi on hot seat over withheld report, wrong statements

On a sunny Friday afternoon, Dr. Sejal Hathi found herself answering tough questions, weeks into her role as the new director of the Oregon Health Authority.

In her first time on the hot seat — publicly at least — Hathi faced pointed questions about false information and a withheld report from members of the state’s Task Force on Alcohol Pricing and Addiction Services, which met in a small conference room on the second floor of the state Capitol.

The 20-member task force of public health experts, wine, beer and cider industry officials and lawmakers is charged with examining alcohol addiction in Oregon, its costs to the state and how the state pays for addiction prevention and treatment programs. Alcohol kills more than 2,000 Oregonians, with a nearly $5 billion cost annually, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Task force members, some on a video conference call, were following up on an Oregonian/OregonLive article that showed that the authority had failed in late 2021 to publish a taxpayer-funded report that had found an increase in the beer and wine tax would do little to reduce excessive drinking. The agency was working on a proposal at the time to raise beer and wine taxes.

“As a new agency director, as a public servant, as a doctor, I am committed to transparency and to restoring, strengthening and sustaining the trust of the public in OHA,” she said. “And I know that if the public does not trust us, we cannot fulfill our health mission.”

Aaron Sarnoff-Wood, a task force member and co-founder of Corvallis-based 2 Towns Ciderhouse, said the authority’s actions were obvious.

“It’s clear that the study was kept from the public for political reasons,” he said.

He also wondered whether there are other reports out there yet to be released, declaring “I’m kind of at a loss of where to go next.”

Hathi, who was there in person, stressed that she’s committed to ensuring all data and reports are accurate and comprehensive.

And she pushed back — gently.

“I also want to take contention with the statement that the report was deliberately withheld for political reasons,” she said, also encouraging him to read all the emails and draw his own conclusions.

At one point, Sarnoff-Wood did just that, reading an authority employee’s email from 2022 that noted the agency’s proposal to raise taxes was not moving forward following the report: “This changes the landscape for us significantly. We may be open to posting the full report now.”

Hathi defended her staff, calling them dedicated, thoughtful people who care about good policies.

But she also faced yet another complication: Hathi had told Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, on Feb. 2 that the study wasn’t shared with outside special interests. The Oregonian story said public records showed officials had briefed Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers and an advocate for higher alcohol taxes, on the report.

“You said it was not shared more broadly within OHA or with any other partners or special interests prior to its posting,” Knopp, a task force member, said. “So someone lied to you for you to make that statement. That statement is obviously false. So there needs to be some accountability.”

Knopp stressed the need for legislators to rely upon the agency’s information.

“I think it’s admirable that you want to support your staff but as legislators, we have to rely on the information that you are giving and your staff are giving,” Knopp said.

Hathi, in response, noted she contacted him after she found out the additional information and she is committed to rebuilding trust.

Amid the furrowed brows, there were moments of levity. Task force members chuckled when Hathi used the wrong last name for Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist who guided Oregon through the pandemic. She said she had worked with a different Dean while in New Jersey, where she was state health officer and deputy health commissioner for public health services.

They laughed a bit louder after Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, and the task force chair, spoke. She praised Hathi for her efforts, adding it’s best for people to admit mistakes and then work together to build trust.

“I’m probably one of the worst politicians ever because I don’t mind saying things directly out loud in front of God and everybody,” Sanchez said. “Yes, if we screwed up, we screwed up, you know. And I don’t hide shit from people.”

“Thank you for saying that,” Hathi responded. “Thank you for the empathy in those words. I will say I’m more than happy to be here and wanted to be here.”

In September, the task force is due to issue recommendations about the funding of addiction treatment and prevention programs and whether to hike taxes on beer and wine.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter.


Recent Blogs