Oregon State Hospital Superintendent Greg Roberts said 13 months ago that he would retire in December, but the search for his successor has gone awry, leading officials to begin anew and forcing Roberts to delay his retirement by five months or more.
The chairwoman of the Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board said officials overseeing the hiring process have not kept up communications with the 12-member board, which advises officials on State Hospital business. The board includes mental health advocates, psychiatry professionals and local residents. Two legislators also sit on the board as nonvoting members.
Beckie Child, interim board chairwoman, sent a tersely-worded letter on Nov. 6 to Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and other officials, expressing “extreme concern” about the hiring process.
In the letter, Child said Oregon Health Authority officials have kept the board in the dark about finding a new superintendent. She said board members weren’t invited to candidate screenings, despite assurances they would be involved at every step from OHA Director Lynne Saxton and Jeremy Vandehey, the governor’s health care policy adviser.
Child wrote that superintendent interviews were scheduled for the same day the board had planned a retreat. After learning of the interviews, Child canceled the retreat and the interviews were rescheduled. Child did not respond to requests for additional comment.
A Health Authority official later apologized for the apparent mix-up. It wasn’t enough to assuage Child, who wrote in her letter that she remains “deeply concerned” about the recruitment process, which “appears to be ill-coordinated” and “lacking the attention and leadership of senior officials.”
“The State of Oregon should treat the hiring process with a level of rigor and high expectations befitting the high stakes involved,” Child wrote.
When asked for comment, Courtney, a Salem lawmaker who is one of the board’s nonvoting members, reacted with alarm.
“What the hell is going on?” said Courtney, who has been involved with State Hospital governance for years. “I thought everything was stable and going well on this.
“We really need to be right on this. This superintendent position is critical.”
The superintendent is part administrator, part health care professional and part jailer; the State Hospital can house 800 psychiatric patients at a time, some of whom have been involuntarily committed by a judge or jury after being found guilty of crimes except for reason of insanity. The hospital has campuses in Salem and Junction City that employ more than 2,000. Its two-year budget is nearly $500 million.
The superintendent also guides the State Hospital’s attitude towards its patients’ psychiatric care. Roberts has taken the hospital from the brink of federal oversight to opening new facilities, winning awards and becoming a model of effective psychiatric care for other states.
Kristen Grainger, the governor’s communications director, said response to Child’s letter has been handled by Saxton and the Health Authority. Requests to interview Saxton were denied, and State Hospital spokeswoman Susan Stigers said “there are no concerns” about superintendent recruitment.
“Our ultimate goal is to find a new superintendent who is capable of continuing the legacy of excellence OSH Superintendent Greg Roberts has instilled during his tenure,” Stigers said. “That is a very high bar.”
Health Authority spokeswoman BethAnne Darby said the agency, which oversees the Salem psychiatric facility, decided to start the hiring process over after several candidates dropped out of the running. She called it “a failed recruitment.” No one has applied for the job yet, Darby said.
“The goal is to have a highly qualified candidate for consideration,” she said. “Our goal is to continue recruitment until we feel we have a few available for interview.”
She said there is plenty of time to find a fitting replacement for Roberts, and that the Health Authority has been in “active conversation” with the advisory board. She said it is standard practice for the advisory board to be involved in vetting superintendent candidates.
Darby said Roberts, the current State Hospital head, will stay on until at least April 1. Roberts has lead the hospital for six years — a year longer than he intended to hold the post, he said in a previous interview.
The State Hospital advisory board is set to meet at 9 a.m. Dec. 1 at the hospital, 2600 Center Street NE, in the third floor Callan Conference Room. Saxton, the Health Authority director, is expected to attend.