Governor hopeful, Buehler, blasts Brown's leadership on agency overpayments

State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is running for Oregon governor, appears on KATU's political show "Your Voice Your Vote" on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. He sharply criticized Gov. Kate Brown's handling of the Oregon Health Authority's Medicaid overpayments issue. (KATU Photo)

Knute Buehler is on the offensive.

The state representative and physician from Bend, who is the latest Republican who’s come forward with the hope of challenging more than 30 years of Democratic control of the governor’s office, is using the recent news that the Oregon Health Authority overpaid at least $74 million in Medicaid money to the state’s coordinated care organizations as a way to attack Gov. Kate Brown’s leadership skills.

In interviews last week before and during the taping of KATU’s political show “Your Voice Your Vote,” Buehler said the overpayments and other problems at OHA were the result of Brown’s “astounding lack of leadership” and her administration’s “negligence.”

The overpayments were first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive on Oct. 31. Reporters there discovered that the state had made the overpayments between 2014 and 2016, and the OHA kept the public and, according to the governor’s office, the governor in the dark about the problem.

Oregon has repaid $10 million to the federal government.

OHA’s previous director, Lynne Saxton, resigned at the end of August, reportedly because of an unrelated matter. Brown replaced her with Pat Allen.

In a news release on the same day The Oregonian/OregonLive’s article was posted on its website, the governor’s office said the overpayment problem stemmed from the state’s Cover Oregon project, which was largely a website that failed to function properly. It started under the direction of Brown’s predecessor, John Kitzhaber.

Brown became governor after Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015.

Almost a week after the news of the overpayments broke, Buehler wrote a letter to Brown where he said the overpayments should be repaid, an independent investigator should be appointed to look into the matter, and that all related records should be made public.

The next day, Brown directed Allen to seek repayment of the $64 million, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. During an interview last Tuesday shortly before he taped a “Your Voice Your Vote” segment with host Steve Dunn, Buehler took credit for prompting Brown’s action.

“From the very beginning she said she was out of the loop on this issue, and it wasn’t until our letter that she actually engaged and made a statement that these things should be (paid back). And now she’s only back talking about this issue only in response to the letter we sent,” he said.

Brown wasn’t available for an interview for this story. In response to written questions, the governor’s office didn’t directly answer whether an independent investigator should be appointed but said Allen and his new leadership team have been tasked to conduct an internal investigation into the Oregon Health Authority. The director has also been asked to frequently update the public and the governor with his findings.

“Director Allen must first identify the nature and scope of the issues at OHA before being able to consider the best actions to rectify them,” spokesman Bryan Hockaday wrote. “Governor Brown supports Director Allen’s commitment to putting good governance and valuable service to Oregonians first, putting aside the political gamesmanship being played by others.”

For Buehler, an internal investigation isn’t enough.

“Pat Allen answers to the governor. I think we need an independent person to look into these things so we can regenerate some trust in the agency,” he said.

As for his own view of how governors should lead their agencies, Buehler said, “The governor’s the boss of the agency. As a leader of an organization, you set the strategic vision. You hire good people to carry out that strategic direction, and then you establish the culture of accountability through the organization.”

Buehler says he plans on introducing legislation next year that would require the repayment of the funds as well as an independent investigation.

Watch this week's "Your Voice Your Vote" below. In the second segment, Pacific University professor Jim Moore joins Steve Dunn to discuss the hot topics in politics -- both on the state and national level:

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