Member Spotlight: Richard Opper

December 08, 2016|3:05 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Richard H. Opper, MS, is the state health officer and director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, an agency that also provides human services, such as SNAP and TANF benefits. In addition, the department protects children and adults from abuse and neglect, provides services to people with disabilities, and administers the state’s Medicaid program.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
I was director of another state agency for eight years prior to my taking on this assignment, which I have been honored to serve, at the governor’s request. My desire was to improve the health of Montanans and provide services to vulnerable populations. So my responsibilities extend beyond just being the state health officer.

Why is health important to you?
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, health is pretty darned basic. Personally, I need health and exercise to manage stress and give me energy to face the challenges of the day. On a population basis, health is critical. I believe that quality of life is as important or more important than prolonging life. I once saw a quote that said "Longevity without vitality is overrated." I agree.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?
This is a very big agency and public health is only part of what we do. However, our public health folks are the ones within the agency who know how to use data. They work with others in the agency to get better analyses of data, treatments for mental health, and other issues we address. Our public health people also work much more closely with our Medicaid program to develop preventative services that Medicaid can cover. It’s been wonderful to see the progress made there.

What do you find most challenging about public health?
I think that historically, public health hasn’t done a good enough job at explaining its importance to the public. It needs more effective spokespeople. That’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to ASTHO, because it helps spread the word effectively.

What are your primary public health priorities?
1.) Prevention
2.) Prevention
3.) Prevention

I’ll stop there. I would love to see the proportion of healthcare dollars spent on treating disease and those spent on preventing disease even out a bit. This would save a few tens of billions of dollars, and you have to count your successes, no matter how small. It would also save lives, and just as importantly, improve the quality of life for those suffering from preventable chronic illnesses.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your public health career?
Medicaid Expansion. I am thrilled that we got Medicaid Expansion passed in my state in 2015. In the first year, we’ve signed up over 60,000 of the 70,000 people in the Medicaid Expansion population. These people can now access preventative health services, get the back surgery that allows them to return to work, exercise, manage their asthma or high blood pressure through medications they couldn’t afford before Medicaid Expansion, and so on. This was a very big deal for Montanans.

What are your favorite hobbies?
Hiking. I also like writing fiction, and I’m thankful every day I don’t have to make a living at it, because I’d starve.

What is your morning ritual?
I usually arrive at the office around six a.m., catch up on emails, draft presentations, and generally clear the decks for any crises and meetings that are coming my way later in the day.

What do you do to stay healthy?
I am a gym rat. I usually spend an hour or so at the gym, 3-4 days a week.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?
I live in the best state in the country, which is, of course, Montana. Once or twice a summer, my wife and I visit Glacier National Park, which is probably my top spot. We do a lot of hiking in other areas of the state as well.