Harold A. "Hal" Cohen, the first chairman of Maryland's Health Services Cost Review Commission and a respected medical economist, died of cancer Monday at Gilchrist Hospice Care. He was 73 and had lived in Pikesville.
Remembered by colleagues as a skillful compromiser and adroit economic referee, he helped contain costs at Maryland hospitals by balancing their interests against what insurance companies and federal programs were willing to pay. He also helped establish means for the indigent and underinsured to receive medical treatment.
"Hal Cohen was a giant in the development of health care in Maryland," said Tom Mullen, CEO and president of Mercy Health Services. "Under his leadership, access to care and cost performance improved throughout Maryland. Mercy in particular benefited from his advice and counsel. Policies developed by Dr. Cohen allowed urban hospitals to compete with those in well-insured markets."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Long Beach, he earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Binghamton University. He also held a master's degree and a doctorate in economics from Cornell University. He was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and was the Danforth Foundation associate while teaching economics at the University of Georgia.
Robb Cohen of Baltimore said his father became interested in the economics of health care after he married Jo Spingola, a nurse.
"He hung out on the nursing floor of the hospital where she was then working," his son said.
Dr. Cohen was hired to be the first chairman of the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission, which was established by the General Assembly in 1971. He became the commission's executive director in 1972 and held the post until 1987.
"When laws are passed, such as the one that established Maryland's hospital rate-setting commission, they usually reflect some societal aspiration for the greater good," said CareFirst President and CEO Chet Burrell. "It's rare — and Hal did this in his position as the organization's first executive director — that somebody so ably takes the aspirations in a complex law and makes them real. Hal was the first and best example of the kind of director the law intended, and set a standard that continues to benefit Marylanders to this day."
"Hal was soft-spoken, a dedicated guy who was brilliant yet unassuming, always friendly," said Richard L. Jones, Bon Secours Hospital's chief financial officer. "He believed that it was the mission of the rate commission to allow for charity care."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who first met Dr. Cohen nearly 40 years ago, said in a statement in the Congressional Record in late 2011: "It was his leadership that cemented the Health Services Cost Review Commission as a Maryland institution. His insight was and continues to be invaluable in containing hospital cost growth. Dr. Cohen worked to ensure that hospitals could provide efficient, high quality care to every Marylander as he focused on ensuring that hospital financing options were fair, accessible and equitable."
Mr. Cardin called Dr. Cohen a "public servant of the highest caliber."
Mr. Cardin praised his work at the commission, which he said had since 1976 provided $1 billion for patients who were "underinsured or uninsured." This allowed hospitals to support their "social mission while providing them with greater financial stability." He said that under Dr. Cohen's leadership, the state had saved more than $47 billion in health care costs.
Mr. Cardin praised him for fighting for "fair and sustainable pricing structures" in the medical field.
In 1985, Dr. Cohen set up his own health care consulting business, Hal Cohen Inc. His clients included health insurers, state governments and hospitals. He was also appointed to federal commissions.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
When Dr. Cohen announced that he was stepping down in 1987, Richard H. Wade of the Maryland Hospital Association said in The Baltimore Sun, "We've had our ups and downs with Hal over the years, but there is an enormous well of respect for the man's integrity and his objectives."
In a 1994 letter to The Sun, Dr. Cohen wrote, "American Hospital Association data show that since 1981, Maryland has had the lowest rate of increase in cost per admission and the lowest rate of increase in charge per admission of any state in the country. Maryland has gone from well above the national average in costs and charges per case to well below the national average."
Dr. Cohen was the author of numerous professional articles. He also spent time with his family and enjoyed travel. He attended the theater and visited art museums.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 51 years; another son, David Cohen of Boulder, Colo.; a daughter, Amy Cohen of Seven Valleys, Pa.; and five grandchildren.