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Firing of Oregon Health Authority diversity chief sparks backlash

Not even six months on the job, agency director Sejal Hathi is grappling with questions and dissension after the unexplained firing of the agency’s strongest voice on equity issues, Leann Johnson
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The Oregon Health Authority's headquarters in Salem in November, 2023. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
June 25, 2024

The sudden firing of the Oregon Health Authority’s longtime diversity and inclusion director has sparked shock among her allies — prompting a backlash as the agency’s new director, Sejal Hathi, tries to make progress on a range of issues. 

After the agency issued a press release on June 21 saying she’d “left” her position, Leann Johnson confirmed to Oggys Online Friday that she had been terminated. One of two Black people in the authority’s leadership, for more than nine years she’d directed its Equity and Inclusion Division, overseeing a broad array of programs intended to reduce health disparities. The firing came two days after Juneteenth, the national holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

Now, Hathi faces furor over the firing even as the new agency chief wrestles with a daunting list of challenges that include the state’s behavioral health crisis as well as calls for further reform of its Medicaid system, known as the Oregon Health Plan, which provides free care to 1.4 million low-income Oregonians. On top of that, Hathi has said she is focused on the state goal of eliminating health inequities in Oregon by 2030 — an effort in which Johnson played a central role. 

Esther Kim, director of the state-funded Oregon Health Equity Alliance, said Johnson’s firing “brings into question OHA’s vision for this work going forward.”

Mica Contreras, executive director of the Linn Benton Lincoln Health Equity Alliance said, “I am extremely troubled by the firing,” adding that it “has created a lot of distrust about the agency’s work on equity.”

It’s not just external critics that question the firing. Current and former employees of the agency are taking to social media to publicly question the treatment of Johnson.

Beth Sanders, an OHA equity manager who worked for Johnson, posted on LinkedIn that she was “shocked,” saying Johnson was fired “for doing equity work… She is a true equity leader and mentor to so many.” 

“Happy Juneteenth, by the way we fired your equity champion who was vocal about improving the lives of Black Oregonians and other communities of color."

Another of Johnson’s employees, Danielle Droppers, agreed in a comment, calling the firing “disgraceful.”

Liz Gharst, a former Oregon Health Authority communications supervisor who worked with Johnson on equity issues, added a LinkedIn comment of her own: 

“At this point, either agencies should be actually committed to dismantling systemic racism or just stop talking about it,” she wrote. “Happy Juneteenth, by the way we fired your equity champion who was vocal about improving the lives of Black Oregonians and other communities of color. Leann is inspirational and brilliant, she deserved better.” 

Oregon Health Authority officials have declined to provide an explanation for the firing. In the press release announcing the change, Hathi was quoted as committing to the work Johnson left behind: “The Equity and Inclusion Division is vital to OHA and the communities we serve. It's important for us to ensure that the Equity and Inclusion Division is not alone in the work to change our policies and programs, dismantle systemic racism and meet the needs of the communities most harmed by health inequities. A commitment to health equity lives in every corner of OHA, and the practice of equity is – and must be – everyone’s job.”

Asked to comment in light of speculation that Gov. Tina Kotek’s office would have been consulted on the move, a state spokesperson confirmed that the governor had. The spokesperson further said that the governor does not comment on personnel matters and that Hathi has discretion over hiring and firing. 

“The Governor believes that applying a racial justice and equity lens to policy making is inextricably linked to the ability of the agency and state government as a whole to serve Oregonians,” Elisabeth Shepard wrote. “This includes policy, budget, workforce and initiatives across the enterprise and identifying racial justice and equity as a stand alone priority. The Governor has full confidence in Director Hathi to carry out this priority.”

Health authority spokesperson Robb Cowie  similarly told Oggys Online in an email that the agency does not comment on personnel matters. 

He added that Hathi “recognizes Leann Johnson’s more than eight years” leading the division. He added that Hathi is committed to supporting the division’s staff  “in their work to guide and strengthen health equity practice across OHA, foster stronger relationships with community partners and eliminate health inequities.”

Polarizing work

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COURTESY GOV. TINA KOTEK'S OFFICE
Dr. Sejal Hathi became director of the Oregon Health Authority in February

Johnson had long been the agency’s strongest voice on combating racism and tackling societal and structural factors that cause racial and other disparities to persist. Last month she received a national leadership award for her work on minority health.

With a budget of about $26 million a year, her office oversees a mix of internal functions — such as overseeing reviews of complaints about workplace civil rights including favoritism in hiring and promotions — as well as external ones, including the state health care interpreter program and its traditional health worker program, which conducts outreach to marginalized communities.

The office also oversees a system of regional health equity coalitions that Johnson championed. Among her efforts was a push to give equity-focused groups more control over Medicaid funding, which sparked opposition from the coordinated care organizations that contract with the Oregon Health Plan.

Supporters credit her with helping the agency more effectively communicate with marginalized groups during the pandemic, helping support a high vaccination rate. Her influence, they say, was reflected in the agency’s unconventional efforts to do outreach and provide relief to eliminate inequities including grants for Black and indigenous strippers and sex workers as well as the “Snack Bloc” during the George Floyd protests downtown.

The division’s teachings have sparked controversy at times, such as when Droppers, Johnson’s employee, sent an email characterizing urgency as a “white supremacy value” — which went viral among conservative media outlets.

“A leader in this field is no longer leading. We need these leaders. It’s a loss.”

Emmett Wheatfall, who administered Clackamas County’s equity and inclusion programs before his position was eliminated in 2019, told Oggys Online that after Johnson’s firing, he worries about what he called the “tidal wave” pushing DEI professionals out of their jobs in the public and private sector. 

Wheatfall did not work directly with Johnson, but knew her from conferences and meetings. He described her firing as painful.

“A leader in this field is no longer leading,” he said. “We need these leaders. It’s a loss.” 

Julie Harrison, a former Oregon Department of Human Services employee, said Johnson was her mentor when she first went to work for the state. 

“She is phenomenal,” said Harrison, who retired in 2022. She said that one of Johnson’s biggest strengths was her ability to complete daily tasks while keeping her eye on her broader vision of elevating the health of people of color who had fallen through the cracks in a system that wasn’t designed for them. 

“I am really hopeful that this isn’t an indication that Oregon isn’t going to roll back,” Harrison added. “That would be incredibly devastating.”


You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jthomasreports

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