The face of human services

• Her department has been buffeted, but Jean Thorne stays the course

In 1995, when newly elected Gov. John Kitzhaber wanted her to head the Department of Human Resources, the state's largest agency, Jean Thorne said no thanks.

But when he was looking to fill the position last December Ñ just before he left office Ñ he turned to Thorne again. This time she said yes.

Last January wasn't the best of times to become head of the agency, now the Oregon Department of Human Services. The state's ever-increasing budget deficit has hit the department hard, threatening to cripple the Oregon Health Plan and other agency programs that serve children and poor, disabled, mentally ill and elderly Oregonians.

But Thorne, who has spent her entire 27-year career in state government and helped conceive and implement the health plan, believed that she was up to the challenge.

'I saw how bad things were; I knew cuts were going to be made,' she says. 'I knew I'd rather be part of doing what we needed to do than to watch from afar.

'I felt Ñ and I've said this to my staff Ñ it's much more fulfilling to manage in good times, but someone's got to do it in bad times.'

The health plan is taking up most of Thorne's time these days: She meets weekly with state officials to discuss its future. But she is well aware of other significant challenges facing the massive department, which has a $9 billion budget over a two-year period. Among them are:

• A staff of 9,500 still adjusting to a major shake-up of the department in 2001.

• Reforming the department's child welfare programs in the wake of a devastating report last year that faulted the department for failing to protect Ashley Pond, the murdered Oregon City teenager whose body was found early last year.

• Large budget cuts to staff and programs that began last November and still are being implemented.

'It has been quite a ride,' Thorne says calmly as she looks over the latest budget figures in her Salem office. 'In all my years in government, I've never seen the level of cuts we've had to take or the level of uncertainty.'

But Thorne has Gov. Ted Kulongoski's full confidence, says Stephen Schneider, the governor's deputy chief of staff, who served on Kulongoski's transition team last winter.

'There are very, very few people who have had the experience Jean Thorne has,' he says. 'She's been the trusted confidante of other governors; she is able to handle difficult issues under stress. She's a known quantity among people who are (Oregon's) best and brightest.'

Ellen Pinney, director of Oregon Health Action Campaign, agrees that 'there are very few people who would be better in that position right now.'

But as head of the patients' advocacy group, Pinney has been disappointed in some of Thorne's recent actions relating to Oregon Health Plan reform.

Uncharacteristically, she says, Thorne is not listening to advocates protesting a new policy that requires Oregon Health Plan recipients to pay premiums and copayments, which, they say, are burdensome.

Pinney's group has suggested policy changes; Thorne has accepted none of them.

Still, 'my overall experience is that I really respect her,' Pinney says.

Not so temporary

Thorne, a Portland native, says she 'was not planning on growing up to be a bureaucrat.'

In 1976, she took a temporary job in the state's Human Resources Department just three days after graduating from Portland State University with a bachelor's degree in sociology. She has worked for the state in one capacity or another ever since, mostly in the health department.

While working in Salem, she attended night classes in Portland to obtain a master's degree in public administration, which she received in 1979.

In 1980, she married Ray Thorne, former head of the Oregon Employment Department. In 1984, when their son, Greg, was born, she took temporary jobs for the state.

That didn't last long. A part-time job with the mental health division as a Medicaid adviser led to her 1987 appointment as director of the Office of Medical Assistance Programs, which oversees Oregon's Medicaid programs.

That job brought with it the first of many controversial, high-profile actions she would take, including backing the Legislature's decision to stop funding organ transplants for low-income Oregonians.

'At the same time, we were expanding coverage for some pregnant women and kids,' she says.

The same year, 7-year-old Coby Howard died because the state would not pay for a lifesaving transplant. By that time, Kitzhaber, then Oregon Senate president and an emergency room physician, had taken up the cause of reforming health care for poor Oregonians.

She remembers a statement Kitzhaber made at an emotional hearing. Deaths such as Coby's occurred daily because people could not get proper care, he said.

'He said we needed to look at the issue in a broader context,' Thorne recalls.

Thus, the Oregon Health Plan was conceived, with its controversial 'prioritized list' of medical conditions the state would and would not cover. The plan eventually covered at least 100,000 more Oregonians than the Medicaid program did.

In February 1994, when the health plan went into effect, 'we assumed we would get 5,000 calls in the first month,' Thorne says. 'We got 4,000 calls a day for the first few weeks.'

She gets the criticism

In 1995, she took a job as Kitzhaber's education policy adviser, which was a refreshing change for her, she said. She returned to health policy in September 2001, when she agreed to help Kitzhaber reorganize the health plan to cover more people.

Now, as director of the Human Services Department, Thorne is the agency's public face and often bears the brunt of the blame for huge budget cuts. But she mostly is bound by decisions that others make, whether it's the governor, the Legislature or the federal government, notes Schneider, the governor's aide.

Still, her department has been the subject of bitter criticism. Advocacy groups and the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems have filed more than a dozen lawsuits against Thorne and the department, trying to stop Oregon Health Plan cuts.

She and the staff try hard not to take the criticisms personally.

'When you work really hard, no matter where you are in the organization, and are somehow chastised for it, you do take it personally,' Thorne says. 'But I also recognize that I'm doing a job somebody has to do.'

To mitigate the pressures of her job, Thorne works in her garden 'because when I pull a weed, I can see I've accomplished something' and reads 'trash novels.'

The Thornes like to take tropical island vacations, with Maui, Hawaii, a favorite destination. Because Ray Thorne is paraplegic Ñ the result of a 1969 car accident Ñ their vacations are places such as the beach, where they can stay put and relax.

So far, Thorne has had little time to think about her department's long-term future.

'Right now we're just trying to get through this session,' she said. 'But in the long term, it's really important that we focus as much as possible on how we better link all of our services.

'We want to do things together more, to make people more successful, especially children. I'd like us to keep that focus.'