Stuart Altman of Brandeis University to lead new Health Policy Commission

Stuart Altman, professor of national health policy at Brandeis University, will chair the new state board charged with setting health care spending goals and tracking providers’ progress toward reducing costs.

The 11-member Health Policy Commission board was created under the state health cost-control law that passed this summer and takes effect on Monday. The measure aims to reduce health spending by limiting its increase to the annual growth of the overall state economy.

The commission is responsible for setting that annual target, monitoring efforts to reach it, and publishing yearly recommendations about how to control costs. It will work closely with the Center for Health Information and Analysis, an independent state agency. That group will be led by Áron Boros, who has been commissioner of the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy since September 2011.

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Altman, a health economist in Brandeis’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, has been working on the issue of health care costs for four decades.

“Dr. Altman’s experience in matters of health policy in both the public and private sectors is deep and unparalleled and will be an asset to the Commonwealth in our work to drive health care costs down,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a press release. “I thank him for his willingness to serve.”

The governor, attorney general, and state auditor are finalizing other appointments to the commission, which will hold its first meeting Nov. 16. The commission effectively replaces the Health Care Quality and Cost Council.

None of the board members may work for hospitals, health plans, or other health care entities in the state. The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Hospital Association sent a letter to the governor’s office last month expressing concern with that stipulation.

“Due to the complex and technical nature of the issues expected before the board, specialized expertise is critical for some of the seats provided for in statute,” the letter said.

It said the law’s broad conflict-of-interest provision is “more restrictive than for the appointment of any other state board.”

Altman said he will drop his position as a board member at Tufts Medical Center and non-paying positions in the state, but will keep his posts on hospital and health plan boards out of state, including some that pay.

He said the policy is justified. Boards that include health care interest groups historically have not been very effective in this country, he said. He noted that the commission can include people who are physicians or who have worked for health care systems but are no longer in paid roles with those organizations.

“I know personally a fair amount about how hospitals operate,” he said. “I’m not going to represent them or anybody else. But on the other hand I’m not anti-hospitals in any way.”

Lynn Nicholas, chief executive of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, praised Altman as someone with “big picture thinking” and deep knowledge of the local health care market.

Altman said he accepted the role of chairman because he believes the state has an unprecedented opportunity. Time and again, state and national efforts to rein in health care costs have failed, he said.

“It works for awhile and then it blows up. Then health care spending starts growing at much faster rates,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can make it work here in Massachusetts and that eventually we will be the model for the rest of the country, because no other state is even trying. The federal government isn’t trying. So, we’re all by ourselves.”

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