New NM health secretary learning on the job after career ‘reset’ - Albuquerque Journal

New NM health secretary learning on the job after career ‘reset’

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Before this month, Patrick Allen had been in New Mexico only once while passing through the state on a long road trip taking his daughter to college.

Now, he’s the head of New Mexico’s Department of Health, a key agency on the front lines of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response, after leaving behind a lengthy state government career in Oregon that ended with him stepping down amid political pressure.

Less than four weeks into his new position after being hired by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Allen described the move as more of a “reset” than a fresh start but acknowledged he still has much to learn about his new home state.

“So far, nobody’s brought me anything I’ve never heard of or seen before, so I think that means I know how to run a health agency,” he said in a recent interview in his Santa Fe office. “I just need to learn how to do it in New Mexico.”

While Allen said he plans to travel the state more once the ongoing 60-day legislative session ends, he said he’s already aware of key differences between Oregon and New Mexico – including the two states’ respective population demographics.

Hispanic residents made up roughly half of New Mexico’s population as of last year, compared to about 14% of residents in Oregon, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

In addition, the average annual per capita income for Oregon residents was $37,816 during a recent four-year period – the figure was $29,624 in New Mexico.

“There are challenges here around income levels and poverty,” he said, citing his experience in Oregon working on health equity issues.

He could also play a key role in carrying out Lujan Grisham’s push to create a New Mexico health care authority, as he led a similar agency in Oregon.

Lessons learned

Allen began his career as a banker before rising through the ranks of Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services, which regulates health insurance companies.

He eventually was appointed by former Gov. Kate Brown as director of the state’s Health Care Authority, but submitted his resignation last year after gubernatorial candidates suggested they would replace him.

He said the New Mexico job offer came about due to a mix of political and personal connections, while adding he ultimately settled on the position after weighing other opportunities.

Health Secretary-designate Patrick Allen stands outside the Roundhouse after meeting with legislators. Allen started his new New Mexico job this month after a lengthy state government career in Oregon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I think a little of this and a little of that led to the Governor’s Office reaching out to me,” Allen said.

Allen is not a doctor and said he relies on physicians and other health care experts to help shape his views.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen said it’s important to learn lessons from the challenges state health officials have encountered over the last two-plus years.

That could include expanding the use of mobile health units to reach vulnerable state residents, including homeless individuals.

He also said the approach to dealing with the risks of COVID-19 has largely shifted from a state-level response to more of an individual assessment.

“Whatever it is we’re in now, it’s not what we were in a year-and-a-half or two ago,” he said.

“The tools that we have available are significantly greater than they were at the time,” Allen added, citing COVID-19 medications, vaccines and widely-available face masks.

New Mexico has had a public health emergency order continuously in place since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the state in March 2020. The order has been extended more than 30 times, with the most recent renewal signed by Lt. Gov. Howie Morales this month. It runs through Feb. 3.

Significant turnover

Allen is one of several new faces in Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet, which has seen significant turnover in the last year with several agency directors stepping down or resigning.

Since starting his new $169,600 per year job on Jan. 3, Allen said he’s been in frequent contact with state Human Services Secretary David Scrase, who served as the Department of Health’s acting secretary for more than a year after the previous agency secretary stepped down in July 2021.

With the agency’s vacancy rate currently hovering at around 30%, bolstering staffing levels will be among his priorities going forward, Allen said.

While challenges loom, Allen said he’s energized and ready to learn.

“I think if you stop learning, there’s something wrong,” he said. “So it’s a great opportunity to keep doing that.”

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