John M. Colmers, chief administrator of Maryland's hospital rate-setting commission, was appointed yesterday acting executive director of the state's powerful new Health Care Access and Cost Commission.
The move, announced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, is designed to tap the expertise of an agency credited with leading the nation in controlling hospital costs.
The appointment immediately got high marks from those who know or have worked with Mr. Colmers.
"I'm not sure they could have gotten a better person," said state Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which helped draft the legislation creating the new commission.
"You can't take a new agency like this and make it work without a lot of experience," agreed Richard H. Wade, a senior vice president of the American Hospital Association who worked with Mr. Colmers during Mr. Wade's 12 years with the Maryland Hospital Association.
The new commission will have broad authority over physicians and other nonhospital health care practitioners, including the power to regulate the types of procedures performed and, potentially, the fees that can be charged for such services. Since passage of the legislation last month, medical groups, insurers, lobbyists and others have been nervously awaiting the appointment of both the commission and its top staff.
Mr. Colmers, 39, has been chief administrator of the state Health Services Cost Review Commission for the past six years. He joined the agency in 1981 as research director, became deputy director in 1985 and was named its second executive director in 1987.
He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two children.
While recognizing his appointment is only in an "acting" capacity, he said it is his "hope and expectation" that he will retain the job permanently once the seven-member, policy-setting commission is named.
Commission members are expected to be appointed within the next week or two, said Page W. Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary.
Even though the legislation specifically says the executive director shall be appointed by the commission, with the approval of the governor, Mr. Schaefer hopes Mr. Colmers will remain in the job, Ms. Boinest said.
In many respects, the new panel was modeled after the cost review commission that was created in 1971 to monitor and control hospital costs in Maryland.
Last year, hospital costs per admission increased 3.8 percent in Maryland compared with a national rate of 8.2 percent.
"John is very competent," said Andrew B. Wigglesworth, legislative lobbyist for the Maryland Hospital Association.
"Our experience with him on the hospital side is that he's been very fair to deal with, and someone who we could work with, someone who can understand problems and work things out, but at the same time had a very strong set of principles," he said.
Mr. Colmers said his first task will be to develop a budget for the new commission. The panel, created by the General Assembly last month, will implement a broad new health care reform bill aimed at making health insurance more available and health care more affordable.
Among other immediate tasks, the commission must develop a standardized package of health insurance benefits that insurers would be required to offer to small companies that now cannot afford health insurance.
It must also set up a network to collect information on all nonhospital health care procedures and costs, and to create cost targets and payment systems for all licensed health care practitioners.
"We are plowing new ground here," Mr. Colmers said, comparing it to the early years of the cost review panel. "We won't see radical change overnight, but we will see steady progress."