Health director taking year leave to work on Obama reform panel

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Mohammad N. Akhter will no longer be the District’s health director.

Officials said Dr. Akhter officially requested a yearlong leave of absence from Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s Cabinet so he can serve on a board charged with carrying out a key portion of President Obama’s health care reforms within the District.

By law, Dr. Akhter had to step aside from his job as director of the D.C. Department of Health so he could serve on the city’s Health Benefit Exchange Board. He followed through on those plans before his swearing-in Tuesday alongside six other appointees to the health exchange board, Mr. Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said Monday.

The D.C. Council last week confirmed Dr. Akhter and Mr. Gray’s other nominees. Officials said Saul Levin, a senior deputy director in DOH’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, will step in as the “acting” DOH director as soon as Dr. Akhter is sworn in late Tuesday afternoon.

Dr. Levin does not have to be confirmed by the council to serve in the acting position, said a spokesman for council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Health. Mr. Catania does not plan to object to Dr. Levin taking the reins at the health department but does feel the position “requires and deserves” a more long-term placement than a one-year appointment.

“We would hope they would have a more permanent arrangement sooner rather than later,” the spokesman, Brendan Williams-Kief, said.

Dr. Akhter has said he is seizing a “great opportunity” to spend a year on the rollout of the exchange, a virtual marketplace of insurance plans that should enable the uninsured or those looking for a better plan to compare providers and save on their health care costs.

He earned nearly $180,000 per year as the health director, yet members of the health care exchange board are not paid.

Dr. Akhter will not receive compensation from the District during his leave of absence,” Mr. Ribeiro said.

Dr. Akhter said he wants to dedicate his expertise to the health care exchange, which must be operational by the end of the year ahead of the Jan. 1, 2014, deadline for implementation under Mr. Obama’s reforms.

A native of Pakistan, Dr. Akhter served as the District’s commissioner of public health from 1991 to 1994. He had been working as a professor for the Howard University College of Medicine when Mr. Gray selected him in January 2011 to lead the city's health department once more.

The District has moved aggressively to set up its health exchange, which is supposed to reduce costs and make insurance plans easier to understand. Its governing board will decide how it is set up in the coming year. Among its major considerations is whether to welcome all insurance plans into the exchange or to handpick providers that may participate, according to Wayne Turnage, director of the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance.

Jurisdictions that welcomed Mr. Obama’s reforms are working quickly on their respective exchanges, after the Supreme Court in June upheld most of the major provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Ten states, including Maryland, had established their health care exchanges through legislation as of early June; three states set theirs up through an executive order; and two states, Utah, and Massachusetts, passed their laws even before the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in early 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The conference says seven states had legislation pending to set up their exchange, while the remaining 28 states, including Virginia, had either failed to pass such legislation or not taken any action (governors in New Mexico and New Jersey vetoed bills passed by the state legislature).

In the District, only about 5 percent of the city’s population is uninsured because of aggressive efforts to cover residents under Medicaid or the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, which enrolls many immigrants who are not eligible for the federal program, officials said.

Mr. Obama’s reforms expanded the pool of Medicaid-eligible residents in the District, allowing adults without children and earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level to enroll under the federal program.

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