Dr. Hathi Brings Impressive Credentials, Experience and Energy to the Job
Dr. Sejal Hathi, a primary care physician, Stanford MBA graduate and former White House public health advisor, has been chosen by Governor Kotek to lead the Oregon Health Authority, with its $17 billion annual budget and 5,000 employees.
Hathi, who starts her new job in January, has squeezed a lot of education and experience into her 33 years. In just the last two years, Hathi has been deputy commissioner and state health officer in New Jersey, senior policy advisor for public health for the Biden administration, and a health policy scholar and assistant professor of medicine at John Hopkins University.
She takes over an agency that has been entangled in Covid-era controversy and cycled through three directors over the last year. The previous director only stayed for seven weeks. In an interview with The Lund Report, Hathi pledged to stick with the OHA job. “I’m here for the long haul and I’m committed to seeing through the Governor’s priorities to finish this term and hopefully another term that follows.”
Hathi identified Kotek’s priorities as “expanding Medicaid services to include housing and food at a time when the agency is reviewing the eligibility of its 1.4 million members”, eliminating health inequities by 2030 and increasing the state’s behavioral health and addiction treatment services. She cited findings by Mental Health America that Oregon has the nation’s highest incidence of mental illness but among the fewest treatment options.
“Paramount to that goal will be ensuring we are investing adequately and responsibly, not only in treatment services, but in the wraparound navigation, social services and housing that we know underpin the success of our behavioral health programs or, when missing, precipitate poor behavioral health outcomes,” Hathi said.
Hathi grew up in San Francisco as the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her father was a political refugee from Uganda and her mother grew up in Tanzania. They came to the United States, she said, to “attain the American dream”.
“Since my youngest years, I have been obsessed with fixing what is broken, finding, understanding, reforming those structures and institutions that entrench social inequities and compress the human potential,” Hathi told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “This is a state and a team that embraces my values for equity, for evidence-based policy, for innovation and relentless improvement. I’ve had my eye on Oregon for quite a while, and I could not be more excited to make the state my home.”
As a 19-year-old college sophomore, Hathi founded an international nonprofit to mentor and train young women to solve problems. The organization, which attracted major donors and is active in more than 20 countries, is run by young women.
A year ago, Hathi married Sheel Tyle, a first generation American who founded a global venture capital firm called Amplo. His parents are also of Indian descent, he attended Stanford and Harvard and he was a member of President Obama’s 2016 delegation to Cuba.
Hathi earned her bachelor of science degree at Yale University where she focused on molecular, cellular and developmental biology. She returned to the West Coast for her MD and MBA from Stanford, then went to Harvard Medical School as a clinical fellow. As a resident physician. she cared for Covid-19 patients at Massachusetts General Hospital.
She founded two social enterprises to promote equity and leadership by women and young girls and was chosen by the United Nations as a public health leader to recommend ways to reduce maternal and child mortality. Hathi also launched and led a voter education and mobilization initiative for providers and their patients. She has spoken at TEDWomen, the World Health Assembly and the United Nations. During the pandemic, Hathi appeared regularly as a medical commentator for CNN, BBC, CBS News and Yahoo! News.
Hathi indicated she was approached by Kotek’s office about by the OHA directorship.
Dealing with Measure 110 Fallout
When she arrives in Oregon in mid-January, Hathi will find herself in the middle of a debate over Measure 110 and decriminalization of drug possession. The 2024 legislative session will consider proposals that range from repealing the voter-approved initiative to amendments that restore the ability of law enforcement to charge and arrest people who engage in street drug use.
Hathi told the Lund Report she favors the policy of decriminalizing drug use and ensuring there are adequate detoxification and treatment facilities to provide a way out of addiction. Hathi said she is aware of the controversy surrounding the policy and promises to do all she can to “faithfully execute that law and deliver on its promise by improving accountability and ensuring that appropriate services are accessible and affordable across the state. And I aim to do so by advancing a health and prevention-based approach to the ongoing crisis that we know in other settings across the country can and does work.”
The incoming OHA director expressed support for harm reduction efforts. “I’m a champion of harm reduction and I am inspired by Oregon’s commitment to centering harm reduction services and its fight against the opioid epidemic, from decriminalizing possession of syringes and fentanyl test strips to issuing two standing orders to deploy Naloxone statewide. I have been an advocate for harm reduction as a doctor because I’ve seen that it works and it helps people get on track. It connects them to services, it is more likely to keep them in care.”
“I know implementation of Measure 110 is fraught. I know this is a complicated issue around which many people have many very reasonable, valid concerns,” Hathi said in her Lund interview. “Even while I’m a vocal champion for a harm reduction – centered on a public health centered approach to addiction, I fully understand that public safety plays a critical role and one of my responsibilities and areas of focus will be bridging our public health system with our law enforcement and public safety system.”
“I know there is no age requirement for getting the job done.”
Running a Big State Agency
Hathi oversaw a New Jersey public health agency with $2 billion budget and 1,000 staff members, a fraction of the size of OHA. The agency’s most recent director left, calling it “toxic”. There are already mutterings about her young age and relative lack of experience managing a large, complex organization.
“I harbor no illusions about the path ahead. I know it will be hard and long and full of challenges, but I’m committed to that journey,” Hathi said in a video interview following her appointment. “I know, at the same time, that there is no age requirement for getting the job done. My job is to keep and fulfill the promises that the state has made, that the governor has made to the people of Oregon.”
Describing herself as a “physician and public servant”, Hathi said, “I similarly had to wrangle a lot of difficult perspectives and bridge silos, entrenched silos to push the work forward. That is that grit and commitment that I will bring to this role.”
Hathi will be the first medical doctor to run OHA in a decade. Senator Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, who is also a primary care physician, said, “Dr. Hathi’s impressive experience on the frontlines and in public health policy will be essential as OHA takes on implementing the next generation of health care policy and programs.”
That next generation of policies and programs will include expanding Oregon’s Medicaid program to include dental care and housing support in collaboration with Coordinated Care Organizations (CCO) set up during the Kitzhaber governorship.
“Having a new leader in place will help our team and countless others – from public health to health systems – continue to build out Oregon’s vision for a system of health that puts people first, said Becca Thomsen, a spokesperson for CareOregon, the state’s largest CCO. “We’re excited to hear that Dr. Hathi is aligned in this vision. We’re eager to continue this partnership and welcome the OHA director to her role.”