- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2012

D.C. Department of Health Director Mohammad N. Akhter is poised to request a leave of absence from his cabinet post to serve on a board governing the city’s health care exchange, a key ingredient of President Obama’s reforms that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he and city officials said Friday.

The officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said Saul Levin, a senior deputy director in DOH’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, will step in to serve as the agency’s director.

A D.C. Council committee on Friday approved Dr. Akhter and six other nominees selected by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to serve on the Healthcare Exchange Board. The full council is expected to confirm the nominees at its July 10 legislation meeting.

Dr. Akhter is expected to request his unpaid leave of absence in the week following his confirmation because he cannot serve as both DOH director and a voting member of the board and he feels the healthcare exchange — a virtual marketplace of health insurance plans — is an important part of implementing Mr. Obama’s reforms, according to officials within the city’s executive branch and the council.

Dr. Akhter said the president’s healthcare reforms are “extremely important” for both the District and the nation.

“I just thought this was a great opportunity,” he said in a phone interview Friday, explaining the unusual move.

He said he is ready to spend a year on the urgent effort to roll out the exchange, which lets the uninsured or those looking for a better plan to compare providers and save on their healthcare costs.

“We have to have this whole thing prepared and submitted by November,” he said of the exchange, which all states must implement as part of Mr. Obama’s law.

Dr. Levin, as the acting director, will serve as a non-voting member of the board alongside three other ex officio members — Wayne Turnage, director of the D.C. Department of Healthcare Finance, David Berns, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, and William P. White, commissioner of the city’s Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking.

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 tapped him in January 2011 to serve the city once again at the helm of its health department.

Committee Chairman David A. Catania, at-large independent, said Friday’s markup of Dr. Akhter and the other health exchange nominees “is another step forward in the District’s journey to fully realizing the benefits of healthcare reform.”

The city has moved aggressively to set up its health exchange so it is operation-ready by the start of 2013. The exchanges are supposed to reduce costs and make insurance plans easier to understand, according to Mr. Catania’s office.

The board will govern the exchange and 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 hand pick providers that may participate, Mr. Turnage said after the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday.

Mr. Catania’s office said the District has “set the pace” for implementing the Affordable Care Act by codifying federal reforms in its local laws, such as allowing residents up to 26 years old stay on their parents’ insurance plans and making sure the majority of insurance premiums are spent on actual healthcare costs.

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 up to 200 percent of the poverty level to enroll under Medicaid. Before the ACA, childless adults could not be eligible for Medicaid without waiving provisions of the federal law.