'Mr. Health Care Reform' to leave key state post


John M. Colmers, whose career covers much of the history of health regulation in Maryland, said yesterday that he will leave his job as executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission at the end of next month to work for the Mil- bank Memorial Fund, a foundation that studies health policy.

He has served as executive director of two other regulatory commissions and dealt with issues as varied as HMO "report cards," nurse shortages, health-record privacy, hospital rates, and small-employer insurance coverage.

"He's sort of been Mr. Health Care Reform in Maryland," said Dr. Donald E. Wilson, who chairs the health care commission and is dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland.

Colmers was a doctoral student in health economics at the Johns Hopkins University in 1981 when he came to work as chief of methodology development at the Health Services Cost Review Commission, the agency that sets hospital rates in the state.

He became the panel's deputy director and then executive director in 1987. He oversaw the commission's efforts to modernize regulation in an era of health maintenance organizations.

In 1993, the General Assembly passed a major health insurance reform bill, creating the Health Care Access and Cost Commission to oversee new regulations.

Colmers became its first executive director, helping it develop a more affordable benefits package for small employers in an effort to reduce the number of uninsured. Half a million Marylanders are now covered by those policies.

"Unlike some government programs, it really did solve the problem it sought to address - the inequities in insurance coverage for small businesses," said Steven B. Larsen, state insurance commissioner.

HCACC also pioneered the state's HMO report cards, comparing the HMOs operating in the state. The fourth annual report card was issued Wednesday. The commission also built a database of health costs in the state - because of that work the public knows that health is a $17 billion industry in Maryland.

Last year, HCACC was merged with the health planning commission to create the Maryland Health Care Commission. The merged agency is in the process of reviewing the state's health planning rules and policies, including whether the state should still control whether hospitals can offer such services as obstetrics and open heart surgery.

The health care commission has a staff of 64 and a budget of $7.1 million.

Throughout nearly two decades of wrestling with contentious issues, Colmers has been "a real consensus-builder" who could negotiate among key constituencies to get support for a course of action, said Robert Murray, current director of the cost review commission.

Dr. Harold A. Cohen, the original executive director of the cost review commission and the man who first brought Colmers into the state health bureaucracy, described Colmers as "diplomatic."

Colmers himself described his work as "being able to find compromises to solve very vexing problems." He also said he learned from Cohen that the goal of regulators was to fix markets that failed, but only to the point that the free market could operate again.

Besides a soothing manner, he used "real skill in being able to translate incredibly technical issues into layman's language" to win the confidence of legislative leaders and state executives, Murray said.

Larsen, chief legislative aide to Gov. Parris N. Glendening before he became insurance commissioner, said of Colmers, "The confidence key legislators had in his ability made them comfortable" in merging two different health commissions under his leadership.

Wilson said the commission will name an acting director from the current staff, then decide about a permanent replacement.

Colmers and the Milbank foundation are no strangers. Since 1998, Colmers has chaired the Reforming States Group, a Milbank-sponsored organization of state executive and legislative leaders interested in health reform.

He will be a program director at Milbank, working on a project to identify and study health problems. He will work two days a week at Milbank's New York headquarters, but continue to live in the Oakenshawe neighborhood in Baltimore.

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