By Hillary Borrud and Jeff Manning

The Oregonian

Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday directed the state’s top health official to seek repayment of $64 million in Medicaid money that the state wrongly sent to health care organizations.

The governor sent the letter a day after her likely Republican opponent in the 2018 election, Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, wrote his own letter calling for the governor to recoup the money.

In her first public statement on the issue last week, Brown did not call for repayment. State health authority leaders said at the time that unidentified previous agency “leadership” had made a policy decision not to ask health care groups it contracts with to pay back the $64 million.

Brown’s letter directs them to reverse that stance. Brown wrote in the letter to Patrick Allen, acting director of the Oregon Health Authority, that “taxpayers are counting on you to take swift action and have zero tolerance for the waste of their taxpayer dollars.”

In his critique of Brown’s management, Buehler also called for Brown to appoint an independent lawyer to investigate the overpayments and release her administration’s communications on the issue. But Brown has not directly responded to those suggestions. The governor said last week she only learned of the problem in mid-October.

In her directive Tuesday, Brown requested that Allen submit a written report on the issue every two weeks and develop a dedicated website on which to publish public records requests and related documents. She commended Allen for being “dogged and transparent” since taking the top job at the health authority in August.

Brown installed Allen to replace Lynne Saxton, who resigned under fire after agency documents revealed the health authority plotted to smear an adversarial health care organization. The health authority has struggled to effectively administer the Medicaid program that was vastly expanded by the Affordable Care Act.

It’s at least the second time this year Brown has asked the health agency to provide regular updates on its work to resolve Medicaid problems. In May, Brown demanded weekly updates as the department struggled to clear a backlog of Medicaid eligibility checks.

The overpayments, which totaled $74 million from 2014 through 2016, according to the health authority, occurred because the state incorrectly enrolled people in Medicaid, apparently unaware they were also old enough to qualify for Medicare. When people are old enough for Medicare and poor enough for Medicaid, Medicare generally covers most of the patients’ costs. Instead, Oregon’s health agency signed people up for Medicaid as if they had no other health coverage.

After the federal government caught the problem last year, the state asked the companies that administer Medicaid, known as coordinated care organizations, to repay the $10 million they were overpaid in 2016. But health officials decided not to ask for the money wrongly dispensed in 2014 and 2015, even though the federal government could still ask Oregon to repay it.

In a possible reference to Buehler and other critics of the state’s handling of its Medicaid program, Brown asked Allen to “remain focused on that goal and ignore the political games that a few are playing with the ability to provide health care to more than a million Oregonians.”

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